A pink glow stretches across the sky at sunrise in Varanasi. We meet our guide, then our boat glides slowly across the river, past early morning worshippers performing ancient rites in the sun. The shoreline buildings reflect warm light, as holy men set up shop under colorful umbrellas. They stroke vertical stripes of paint on their forehead to symbolize allegiance to Vishnu or horizontal stripes for Shiva.
Varanasi is a city known for death. Located along India’s sacred river Ganges, it is where people go to mourn, burn bodies and release the remains of their loved ones. According to Hindu belief, if one dies in Varanasi, they complete the cycle of birth and reincarnation and are elevated to the highest level of existence after death. Yet, as a walk through this city confirms, it is filled with color and life.
At times Varanasi has the feel of Venice, with its 84 ghats and princely palazzo’s like the BrijRama Palace. Small boats clack together, with echoes reminiscent of gondolas on the Grand Canal. The narrow backstreets of old town are also similar, but this is where the comparison ends.
Varanasi is a city like no other. Beyond these fleeting Venetian references there are the rituals, ceremonies and traditions of Hinduism. Mourners shave their heads and meet with holy men to shepherd their loved ones to the other side. They either cremate their ashes in Varanasi or do so locally in their home town and bring them here to distribute in the river. It is a major pilgrimage site for Hindus.
Our guide informs us that there is a special energy in Kashi, as the oldest part of the city along the banks is called. He likens it to the vortexes of Sedona. I make a mental note to evaluate this information later, after I’ve had time to walk around and absorb it. Regardless of tradition, I have found that there is a palpable energy in the spiritual places of the world.
A Walk Through Old Town Varanasi
A few steps away from the BrijRama Palace is old town Varanasi – with its narrow lanes, shops and colorfully dressed people. The street art is memorable, along with its street food. For a photographer it is a delight of color, meaning and motion.
Evening Aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat
Every evening just after dusk there is a spectacular ceremony at the Dashashwamedh Ghat. It lasts for 45 minutes and is dedicated to the river and giving thanks. There is chanting, bell ringing and the respectful handling of smoke and flames in a city known for the eternal flame of its famous crematorium. Though this city is constantly dealing in death there remains a light hopefulness here.