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the oldest living city in the world

semi-overcast 21 °C

Some say that Varanasi is at least 5,000 years old, others more than 25,000 – but what is known (according to my guide book) is that when Siddhartha Gautama, the historic Buddha, arrived here in 550 BC he found a developed settlement.

Spread out along the Ganges (although the river’s true name is Ganga), Varanasi is everything you’ve ever imagined about India – wrapped up in one, distinct, unforgettable package:


It is noisy, crowded, dirty, colourful, totally authentic and absolutely mind blowing. It is here where the streets are lined with beggars – a disturbing amount of whom have parts of their limbs missing because of leprosy … and it is here where hawkers selling everything from paint pigments to henna to postcards to flowers to candles to food and everything else you can think of surround you … harass you … cajole you … bargain with you … charm you and physically invade your space. You literally cannot walk … stop for even an instant … or ride in a rickshaw without being bombarded.

But at the same time, you feel its spirituality wash over you the minute you arrive.

Varanasi has also been the religious capital of Hinduism through all recorded time. Every devout Hindu wants to visit Varanasi at least once in their lifetime – to free themselves of their sins and, hopefully, to die here when they’re old and to be released from the cycle of rebirth (Hindus believe in reincarnation).


In fact millions of pilgrims come here each year – from within India – and every corner of the earth to be cleansed themselves … to release the ashes of loved ones into the sacred Ganges … and to cremate the bodies of family members who have just died.


Here, the crematoriums burn 24 hours a day – it is a constant procession of mourners carrying bodies – first to be dipped in the Ganges – then to be placed on the pyres until there’s nothing but ashes left.

But what is most astounding – at least to me – is the sheer number of the faithful who come to bathe and do their laundry in the Ganges, each and every day.


Our first night here we went, at Sundown, on a boat cruise where we stopped at the important Ghats (steps leading to the river) … at one of the major cremation sites … made wishes on behalf of our friends and family (still living) while we placed candles surrounded by flowers into the Ganges on their behalf … and we attended the evening Aarti (prayer with lights) held on the bank of the river. You just can’t imagine what it was like.


We then went back to the hotel for dinner and also to celebrate Rashmi’s birthday with champagne and birthday cake.


We made arrangements for this little surprise with T.K. Joy, the restaurant manager who couldn't have been nicer -- he actually said there would be no charge for the cake -- it was from the hotel. You have never met more generous or hospitable people than here.

An early night was had by all because we had to meet at 6:15 in the morning to return to the river to pray for those loved ones we have lost.

To see the procession of boats and the bathers through the early morning mist is a sight I will remember forever. Rashmi also arranged for special prayers to be said for our friends and family who have passed away. It was incredibly moving and also spiritually uplifting at the same time.


And then …

When we arrived at the hotel we saw a lot of Tibetan monks in the lobby and were curious. Rashmi, who is not shy by any means, went over to talk to them. Believe it or not the Dalai Lama is here – and was teaching the next day nearby. Rashmi immediately set out to try to get us an invitation.

Security would be extremely tight and we had to show them our passports and go have additional photos taken – which we did. There were no promises made but they would try.

In the end Rashmi couldn’t reach the monk she had spoken to but we went to where His Holiness was speaking anyway – and she managed to get us in. Unfortunately we couldn’t get close enough to “touch him” but we could listen. We were “in his presence” – with about 20,000 devotees.

We then continued on to Sarnath – where Buddhism found its roots and where we visited one of the world’s major Buddha Centres. What struck me was how simple this temple was in comparison to the temples we have seen throughout India – a very marked difference.

And then, for something completely different, we went to a silk (Varanasi is known for silk) factory/showroom. We watched as craftsmen who have learned from generations past, how they weave (both by hand and using ancient machines) silk for saris, bed coverings, pillows, scarves, shawls, handbags – you name it, they’ve got it. And then, of course, we shopped – what else is new?

For dinner Rashmi had a surprise planned. “Be in the lobby at 7 pm” – that’s all she’d tell us …

Posted by a_broad 18:51 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites

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Just watched another program on India, it's amazing but in the past two weeks there are so many T.V shows on India, yesterday I saw a young woman travelling to Varnasai and Sarmath, so that familiarized me with the two places, that experience with the Dalai Lama is amazing, it happened to me a few years ago when I was in New York and the Dalai Lama was there, will tell you when you get back...What an absolutely fabulous experience you are having...and I am so grateful that you are sharing it with me...I love travelling with you...by the way it is 32 below zero here today...but sunny...
the pictures are wonderful...thak you for it all.
Love Dana

by Dana Bell

Your pictures of the people at the water's edge bathing and cremating their loved ones reminded me so much of a movie I loved called "Water" (one in a series of excellent such movies about Indian culture. What a fabulous myriad of sights, sounds, cityscapes, architecture and culture. Truely a total experience!
Love, Heidi

by heidilynn

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