Varanasi, which lies on the Ganges river, is often called India’s holiest city. The city is truly astonishing. Especially the part of the city along the Ganges, which must be a contender for the most religiously devout area on earth. Below, let’s explore this marvelous place together.


Mother Ganges

The lifeblood of Varanasi is “Ganga Mata” or Mother Ganges, the great river whose waters provide life to millions of people. Holy men (and others) wake at dawn and go to the river to bathe, to pray, and to offer the sacred water to the sun god Surya.

Ganges at dawn. | Photo credit: Brian Crawana


Cremation Grounds

Varanasi marks the birth of dawn but also, marks death. For many Hindus, the banks of the Ganges are the most desirable place on earth to be cremated. The oldest son of the deceased washes in the Ganges, dons white garments, and will light the fire. The fire comes from a flame that they claim has burned without ceasing for 3500 years and was lit by Lord Shiva. A fellow traveller observed that while we hide death in the West, cordoning it off, here, it is accepted as part of life and entirely visible.

At the cremation grounds, bodies are burned, and the ashes are poured into the Ganges. | Photo credit: Brian Crawana


Hinduism Everywhere

There is so much religious devotion, so many shrines, so many saddhus or holy men in Varanasi, especially as you move close to the river. Varanasi is the city of Shiva, lord of destruction (and thus of the cremation grounds), so there are Shiva lingams – cylindrical stones that represent Shiva – everywhere. You find them in alcoves, on ledges, just everywhere. When I left my accommodations, I travelled along an alley and in 40 metres, I found three Hindu temples. They were small 1-3 room temples. But there were three. In 40 metres.

Sadhus, or holy men, are quite common in Varanasi. | Photo credit: Brian Crawana


These are Shiva lingams. These representations of Shiva are everywhere in Varanasi, including in small cubby holes in an alleyway. | Photo credit: Brian Crawana


Flowers are central to Hindu rituals. | Photo credit: Brian Crawana


Sarnath: The Buddha’s First Sermon

Just outside the city is the deer park at Sarnath. Buddhists are very familiar with this park as it is the location where the Buddha gave his first sermon after his enlightenment. Here, for the first time, people heard the teachings that would reshape much of the world and launch the fourth largest religion on earth.

This is the archaeological dig of the location where the Buddha is believed to have taught his first sermon. He would teach for 45 years. | Photo credit: Brian Crawana


A Ritual to Boggle the Mind

Finally, here is how a day ends in Varanasi. You go down to the river, showing up a good 90 minutes early so you can get a decent seat. And people come. They are coming for the aarti, a ritual of fire that will be done to honour Mother Ganges. Lots of people come. Truly, there are thousands. The aarti will be a celebration of flowers and incense, smoke and fire. But it is the crowds that stun you. Because it looks like some major celebration, maybe like Christmas or, in India, Holi or Diwali. But no. They do this ritual every single evening. The crowd is larger than any I’ve ever seen gathered in the town I live in the two decades I’ve lived there. But they do this every night. Is there another city on earth that can gather a crowd this large every night for an hour-long outdoor religious ritual, not to mention the need to arrive hours early to secure a seat? It is unbelievable.

A crowd like this gathers 365 days of the year for this ritual honouring the Ganges. | Media credit: Brian Crawana


India amazes, but Varanasi is the cherry on top. This city of water and fire, flowers and holy men, might be unlike any other place on earth. The depth of devotion, its colour and richness, is spellbinding.

We live in a big and diverse world. India is one of those places that humbles you about how big and broad the human family is.

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