-- Varanasi --
The Holy Hindu City
in the state of Uttar Pradesh, North India

This ancient city, also known as Benares or Banaras
and Kashi  ("City of Light"), is the holiest city for the
Hindus of India.  It is located on the western bank of the
Ganga or Ganges River, between two tributary rivers:
the Varana to the north and the Asi to the south.

Because they believe that to die and be cremated here,
and to have one's ashes then spread upon the holy
Ganges River (which is really the goddess Ganga),
is to gain immediate release from the successive life
cycles, and because it is the location of one of the best
institutions of higher learning in India (Benares Hindu
University), Varanasi is often called "The City of Burning
and Learning."  People from all walks of life gather there
every morning at dawn  for water rituals (ablutions),
meditation, bathing, and the washing of clothes on the
steps down to the rivers called ghats (pronounced "kahts").
 All of the many ghats have names, and two are reserved
for cremation.

(Clicking on any image will give a larger version of it.)

Our rowboat leaves the river bank from one of the
ghats that are midway between the two tributaries
that mark the northern and southern boundaries
of Varanasi, the Varana River to the north, and the
Asi River to the south.  Some claim that Varanasi got
its name from the combination of the names of these
two rivers, but others contend that the opposite is true.
Our rower takes us south, toward the mouth of the Asi,
with the ghat-covered west bank on our right.
It is just before dawn, around 5:30 a.m.


The ghats are steps up to the plateau on which the city
itself sits.  This used to be a tree-covered area, and
was known as Anandavana, "The Forest of Bliss."
Now only small clusters of trees remain.


The sky gradually brightens to reveal that already there is
activity on the ghats.  People are there paying respects to
the sun god, Surya.  Some are doing various water rituals
called ablutions.  Others are dipping themselves, swimming,
bathing, brushing their teeth, or washing their clothes.
It is neither noisy nor silent.  Mostly one hears the natural
sounds of the water being used and enjoyed.


The buildings we see at the top of the ghats are of various
kinds.  There are old forts, retreat centers, hotels, homes,
temples, shrines, businesses, and so forth.


We pass one of the two burning ghats, the Harishchandra Ghat,
where ashes from a recent cremation still smolder.
Cremations are done here around the clock.
 We are far enough away to take a discrete photo.

We detect no odor, either from the ghat or from the river
itself.  Having been told about the pollution and toxicity
of the Ganges, we are surprised that it both looks and
smells cleaner than many rivers that we have encountered
in the United States.


At sunrise, and just before we reach the mouth of the Asi
River, our rower turns the boat around.  We now travel north,
in the direction of the most famous ghat of all,
the Manikarnika.





On our left appears a newly repainted image of Lord Shiva.
Though there are temples dedicated to many of the Hindu deities
in Varanasi, he is still the chief and presiding divinity here.
Indeed, Varanasi is said to be Avimukta, that is, "Never Forsaken"
by him.  In other words, Lord Shiva is ever present here as
Vishvanatha, "Lord of All."


The variety of those greeting the morning sunrise in
devotion and contemplation here is notable.


But just when you think you are beginning to get a handle
on the Hindu pantheon and the wide range of Hindu
devotion, you see a woman on one of the platforms
sitting next to an umbrella that is tied to a five-foot tall
figure of a movie space alien.


Nonetheless daunted, we draw nearer to Manikarnika.

At the far right in the next photo can be seen smoke
rising from the Jalasai Ghat adjacent to Manikarnika
just to the south (and now considered part of it).

And finally, we see the famous profile of the
Manikarnika Ghat, including one temple that
slipped into the Ganges sometime after 1831.

And a bit farther north we proceed, observing the variety
of people and practices . . .



. . . until we turn back for one last look at the city called
Kashi, "The Luminous."


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