Varanasi and the Ganges

One of the oldest cities in the world.

Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world, is an ancient, spiritual city on the bank of the River Ganges. For thousands of years, Hindu pilgrims have made their way to Varanasi for a ritual cleansing in the river, at one of the many riverside ghats [location]. Read on!

Varanasi: sunrise on the Ganges, and a floating diya.

Today, most ghats are concrete steps, allowing easy access to the river at its dry-season low as well as the monsoon floods.  (The river is easily 10-20 feet higher during the monsoon!)

We made two visits to the river, the first after a cycle-rickshaw ride through the bustling streets of old Varanasi. In the evening, we attended a spectacular riverside Hindu ceremony; Aarti, which they perform every evening, is a sensory experience with clanging bells, loud music, brilliant candles, and smoking incense.  At the ghat we visited, hundreds of pilgrims (and tourists) watched from the steps of the ghat or from boats alongshore while seven priests performed the ritual. 

Aarti ceremony on the shore of the River Ganges, Varanasi.

Early the next morning, we arrived at the ghat before sunrise.  The riverside was already busy with Hindus who had come to bathe in the holy Ganga and to worship the rising sun.  Varanasi is on the west bank, so the sun rises directly opposite. 

Varanasi sunrise: pilgrims, and some locals, come to bathe in the Ganga.

We took a rowboat up the river (south) along the banks, then north again past the cremation ghats.  Varanasi is one of the most holy places to be cremated, and indeed the main site often does 200 cremations a day.  

Varanasi sunrise: preparing a body for cremation.

During our visit Pam and her sisters visited the site of Buddha’s first lecture, Sarnath, and saw the Lion capital of Ashoka. I stayed at the hotel with the kids… John and Mara wanted to go swimming and Andy was not feeling well.

Varanasi: the temple at (and statue of founder of) Banaras Hindu University.

We briefly visited Banaras Hindu University, one of India’s oldest universities (c.1916) and the largest residential university in Asia (20,000 students according to our guide, 15,000 students according to Wikipedia). It has a huge campus with impressive architecture and a beautiful Hindu temple.

See photos.

This post was transferred from MobileMe to WordPress in 2020, with an effort to retain the content as close to the original as possible; I recognize that some comments may now seem dated or some links may now be broken.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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