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March 30, 2010

Beyond Calcutta: Varanasi’s Divine Light

Visiting the holy city of Varanasi, Louise Nicholson explains, reveals the hidden heart of Hindu India.

To Hindus, Varanasi is known simply as Kashi, City of Divine Light. One of the holiest of the religion’s seven sacred cities and as old as Babylon, it is at the core of Hindu faith, culture, and studies. Every believer should visit the city—formerly called Benares—once in his lifetime to perform the prayer rituals known as puja at sunrise and sunset. To die here after bathing in the Ganges, India’s most hallowed river, provides the faithful with the greatest chance of moksha, salvation and release from the cycle of rebirth—thus the funeral pyres that burn incessantly here. As a result Varanasi swarms with pilgrims more than it does with actual citizens and the plethora of holy men who minister here. The city is uncompromising, dirty, and difficult. But for those who invest the time and mental effort, it can fascinate entirely. To visit is to experience a pilgrim city going about its daily business of worship and meditation.

Every day here begins and ends on the Ganges. The city faces east, toward the sunrise, and sits on the elevated ground bordering the river’s sweeping curve. Beginning high in the Himalayas and fattened by thousands of tributaries, the Ganges flows across the Gangetic Plain of northern India, absorbs the Yamuna River, which waters Delhi and Agra, and meanders on eastward before spreading into a vast delta that both nourishes and floods West Bengal and Bangladesh. A Hindu’s Ganges yatra, or pilgrimage, begins at the river’s source, near the mountain town of Gangotri. At each of the journey’s many stops, the pilgrim worships this water, believed by the devout to be the incarnation of the goddess Ganga, flowing eternally from the summit of Mount Meru, the abode of the gods. By bathing in the river, one is cleansed of karma—the measurement of the deeds of previous and present lives—and prepared for death. This in turn leads to rebirth and, one hopes, a better life. And nowhere is this ritual more significant than in Varanasi.

The non-Hindu visitor, too, can share in and observe these rituals, which are especially moving at dawn. Pilgrims and secular visitors alike shuffle through the streets in the half dark, board wooden boats, and are rowed upstream as the watery sun rises over the undeveloped eastern bank. Worshippers quietly greet the sun—the god Surya—by dipping cupped hands into the water, or simply by glimpsing their god through splayed fingers. By contrast, in the noisy afternoons excited crowds throng the streets and the riverside steps called ghats, some jostling for boats so they can chant their prayers and float diyas, or oil lamps, into the water. As the sun sinks, priests oversee some of the grandest pujas in all of India, hour-long riverside performances as carefully synchronized as a Broadway musical, with multiple holy men performing rites and chanting in perfect time, using bells and conch shells as their props.

Between sunrise and sunset there is much to see, do, and shop for here. Hire a guide and explore the ancient lanes and tiny temples of Vishwanath Khanda, the oldest part of the city, which lies behind Dasaswamedh Ghat, where most of the boats are; wander the gallis, or lanes, of the Godaulia area, but keep your guide in sight to avoid getting hopelessly lost. He will also lead you to Thatheri bazaar, where brass and papier-mâché masks made for October’s Ram Lila festival are sold. Adjoining the bazaar is the labyrinth of lanes that make up Varanasi’s silk market, best visited in late afternoon when weavers deliver their boxed creations to the dealers.

Among the city’s many important cultural centers, two are especially worth visiting. Near Asi Ghat and the Hotel Ganges View, the riverside Jnana Pravaha houses a lively institute committed to archaeology and Indology as well as Calcutta-based businessman Suresh Neotia’s collection of Indian fine art. And Bharat Kala Bhavan, on the campus of Banaras Hindu University (bhu.ac.in), has one of India’s richest public collections of Indian art and architecture. Finally, Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first speech after enlightenment, is a 30-minute drive outside town; stunning stone sculptures in the Sarnath Archaeological Museum (asi.nic.in) testify to the size and quality of the original monastery, now just abundant ruins.

The finest silk in India is woven for the gods, so it follows that the best comes from this holy city and its surroundings, where Moghul rulers thirsting for luxury brought the craft to its peak. Known as Benares silk, the fabric often incorporates silver- and gold-thread brocading. In Qazi Sadullahpura, the silk-weaving district, the click-cluck of the shuttles flying across the looms fills the air, and a glimpse into the workshops reveals artisans seated busily at their instruments.

To buy the very best silks, however, go elsewhere, specifically to Hasin Mohamed’s shop, H.M. Textiles (Dulli Gaddi, near Yamuna Talkies), where artisans elevate forgotten weaving and brocading skills to a level that would impress even the most discerning Moghul emperor. The finished products, especially the shawls, are works of art, with prices to match. Those who feast their eyes—and drain their wallets—on these creations will never look at textiles the same way. And, having experienced Varanasi with all their senses, they will gain a deeper understanding of the country’s ancient culture and the ways it lives on in the dynamic India of today.

Deconstructing Varanasi

As the managing director of the India tour outfitter Greaves Travel (800-473-2837; greavestravel.com), Mehera Dalton has organized countless trips to Varanasi. She suggests three days in the city, detailed below.

Getting There

Flying, alas, requires a stop in Delhi, so from Calcutta it’s probably best to take the ten-hour Poorva Express train to Mughal Sarai, a 45-minute drive from Varanasi. (Bring a prepared lunch.)

When to Go

The city comes to life with music, dance, prayer, and a million oil lamps floating on the river during the Dev Deepavali festival, which marks the day the gods descended to earth and is held 15 days after the end of the Hindu calendar year. (The next is November 13.)

Staying Put

The modern—albeit slightly corporate—Taj Ganges ($175–$305; Nadesar Palace Grounds; 91-542/250-3001; tajhotels.com) has 130 rooms a bit outside the main town, while the Hotel Ganges View ($60–$85; 91-542/231-3218; hotelgangesview.com), a 14-room heritage hotel located on the Asi Ghats, offers a more authentic stay.

At Table

Varanasi street food is mouthwatering but can upset stomachs, so stick to hotel restaurants. Varuna (dinner, $23) at the Taj Ganges serves excellent local fare; try the satvik thali, a sampling of vegetables and condiments. Tadka (dinner, $25; 91-542/251-0000) at the Ramada Plaza JHV and Chef & I (dinner, $15; 91-542/250-9952), in the Meraden Grand Hotel, have first-rate North Indian cuisine prepared in open kitchens.

Shopping

Don’t leave town without buying silks, hand-knotted carpets from Mirzapur, and a small brass vial of holy river water. To see the most special silk shawl at Silkways (behind Hotel Clarks), ask for something authentic, and around the Vishwanath Temple roam the narrow streets of Vishwanath Galli and Jnana Vapi for precious stones and jewelry, bangles, silverware, and temple offerings.

Guide to Get

Devesh Aggarwal is knowledgeable, thoughtful, and sensitive to how shocking the Varanasi views on life and death can appear to a foreigner. 91-98/3904-2343; devesh_abc@yahoo.com —Sarah Smith