Varanasi – Hindu “Jerusalem”

Before we start, let us offer you a video (click the link below) to see the folk dance and dancers we mentioned in the previous post.


We board an Air India domestic flight (35 minutes…saving a 14 hour bus ride) to Varanasi, the holiest city in India (equivalent to Jerusalem and Mecca) and the oldest continuous living city in the world. It is the city of Shiva, the Hindu God of Gods.

It is the aim of all Hindus to visit Varanasi at least once in their lifetime, and for many to die there. To die there is the ultimate shortcut to Nirvana (avoiding all those various reincarnations).

Our local guide, Krishna, gives us our prayer bead necklace made of seeds. It is fingered as the Ohm (“Ohm Nama Shiva”) is repeated. He tells us Varanasi is the city of “learning and of burning”. 100-150 bodies are cremated on open pyres daily – the only place in India where cremation is done 24 hours a day.

We take a bus toward the Mother Ganges until it cannot go further. Then to bicycle rickshaws as the crowds thicken and the walkways narrow.

Anyone - Anywhere - AnytimeObviously our driver is ready for us. These drivers, both young and old look like sticks, but are pure energy with sinews of steel. How they are able to move these gear-less, heavy conveyances up hills and over deep potholes all day long in 100 degree heat is beyond anything I can imagine. I tip them large.

Flying By the Markets

...and the Food Stands

Here the incredible golguppas, puffed flour crisps filled with cumin spiced water and chickpeas.

And here’s a video of our continuing ride toward the Ganges:

When the rickshaws can go no further we pile out and walk the narrow alleys of Varanasi, lined with shops and hawkers and people cooking up things like glue, tea, soups, chapatis, and dontwanttothinkaboutits.

The Crowds Get Thicker and Noisier

Famous Resident

Look carefully in the center of the shop above. This place is famous for the cow that enters every morning, takes her place on the floor and doesn’t leave until closing.

Colorful Printed Fabric

Glimmering Bracelets

Flowers, Candles, Betel Leaves; Offerings to Mother Ganges

We Pass an Ancient Broom Maker

…and the mood changes as we get very near the crematories.

Stacks and Stacks and Stacks of Wood for the Endless Pyres

Mother Ganges; Ganga

We reach the Ganges just as the sun is going down. In time to meet our boat (21 people and a single oarsman) to row out to view and hear the formal evening prayers to the Mother River, more sacred here than at any other place.

The Funeral Pyres Burn Continuously on the Banks

The mourners watch. The fire’s work is done in about 2 1/2 hours. The ashes are scattered into the Ganges. This is the only place where the fires burn in the open (under sheds elsewhere) as it is the only place where even torrential rains won’t put out the fires. That’s what we are told.

Child Labor Laws?

As our boat gets in position for the spectacular evening prayer ceremony for the Ganges a 10 year old girl rows up alone in her own boat and makes a deal with our guide to sell us the flower/candle floats to place in the water as remembrances. She makes quick, expert work of it, collects her rupees and makes off to the next sale. In the meantime even younger boys, without boats or shoes, leap as nimbly as monkeys from the bow of one boat to the stern of another selling trinkets of all kinds. No one falls this evening.

The Prayers Begin

Seven young priests go through a half hour ritual dedicated to the Mother Ganges, with music and lights, fire and smoke. It is as much entertainment as ritual.


A boat load of Pilgrims, many with their heads shaved, come from all over India and beyond to be part of the evening and morning services. A once in a lifetime event for most. There is hostel like lodging for them in Varanasi.

With the ceremony over we make our way through the crushing crowds, through the alleys to our rickshaws and bus and to the hotel for a few hours sleep. We are awakening at 4 am to be back for the morning prayers to the sun and the bathing (“purification”) in the Ganges.

Just Before Sunrise

Without realizing there was a night we’re back at the river before 5 am to witness the sunrise rituals.

Ganges Bathers

Yes, they really do. The pilgrims and local people (who come everyday to bathe, pray, even brush their teeth in the holiest of waters…our guide insists that some even drink of Ganga). Although the water streams from the Himalayas, hundreds of miles away, it is not clean. Dead cows are thrown in. Children and Holy men are not cremated and instead are weighted and thrown in the Ganges. Dead lepers are thrown in as well. The uncontrolled garbage we’ve been talking about works its way down to the water too. But, locals insist there are “good” bacteria that eat the bad in the Ganges, keeping it “clean”.

Here’s a video to help you understand the bathing ritual:

Every 12 years there is a bathing festival called Kumbas. Once 3 million people came to this spot for it. Just imagine.

On the boat this morning our guide pointed to a body floating in the water…we really believed the man was dead until he opened his eyes and started doing the backstroke. I saw a wry smile on his face.

A Beautiful Sunrise Over the Ganges

A perfect day for the worship of nature and of the Hindu Trinity; Rama (the creator), Vishnu (the protector), and Shiva (the destroyer). The bathers dip in the water three times for the trinity and five times for the elements of nature.

Laundry Service

The practical side of the Ganges allows a large number of laundry services to operate. I hope the “good” bacteria is at work here as well.

A Colorful View Up the Banks of Ganga

Morning Soup

As we make our way back we come across a cauldron of soup boiling away and ready to be distributed to the poor. They do take care of those in need in many small ways. It looks hearty and heartening.

We’re ready now to leave India for neighboring (but not necessarily neighborly) Nepal and Katmandu.

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3 Responses to Varanasi – Hindu “Jerusalem”

  1. Dogs *and* a quirky cow–a lot to like in this post (not to mention amazing bathing and funereal rituals).

  2. Binnie says:

    The photos from the Ganges are spectacular – beautiful and tragic, though.
    The videos of the folkdancing, rickshaw ride and the bathing at the Ganges
    were wonderful; they really take us to your trip. Thanks for sharing it all.

  3. Lea says:

    Joel and Marsha, I am really enjoying reading about your trip to India. Sounds like you are soaking it all up and having a great, and eye opening, trip. Can’t wait to hear more about it soon!

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