Updated: Sep 2, 2019
If you are Hindu (and more than 900 million in India are), the holiest city in the world is Varanasi, considered to be the place where the physical world and the spiritual world meet. Also, if you are Hindu, there is one thing you want: to die and be cremated in Varanasi, and have your remains deposited in the Ganges. Hindus have come here to die for thousands of years, and it’s said that the cremation fires have never stopped! So as I arrived in Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world, I felt a profound sense of excitement and wonder.
Varanasi is such an extraordinary city at so many levels: not only because it’s one of the oldest cities in the world, but also because it concentrates every superlative you can use for India in one place! More cows in the street than people (another reason for me to love the city), more Pilgrims, more hidden temples, more stories... So here is PART I of a 2 PARTS blog posts on Varanasi.
Today I want to share with you one first story, the one that jumped out at me when I arrived, the sacred part of Varanasi: A place where over 7 million pilgrims come annually to pray to divinities, celebrate the spiritual, purify their body and mind in the Ganges, and also die.
Hindu religion has a few fascinating aspects for Westerners. First it has no “founder” (no Jesus Christ, Mohammed or Buddha), no official church (like the Vatican for Catholics) and a belief that God is in everything and everywhere. With that belief comes over 33 million divinities! There is no better place to understand what a true polytheist religion is!
The main three divinities (the Indian “trinity”) are Brahma (he created the world and was born from the original sacred waters; he is depicted riding a swan), Vishnu (he is the protector of the Universe, riding a white eagle), and Shiva (who can destroy all that is not “reality” and he rides a bull). To make it more complicated, each divinity (remember there are over 33 million) can be represented by various symbols. For example, Brahma’s symbols include the scepter, the Mala Beads, the Veda Book and the lotus flower.
But there are many other really cool divinities, one of my favorite being Lord Ganesh (who is represented as a human body with an elephant head), who is the “Remover of Obstacles.” There are so many divinities that it is hard to remember all of them, and especially their relationships (Sarasvati is the wife of Brahma, Laksmi the wife of Vishnu and Parvati the wife of Shiva and mother of Ganesh). But a fun and convenient way to learn all of them is to buy the comics books sold everywhere in India!
Every evening at 7 p.m. in Varanasi, all year long, for thousands of years, pilgrims and locals gather on the bank of the Ganges River (called “Ganga” in Hinduism), to pray during a beautiful one-hour ceremony where young Brahmans execute a very codified and harmonious ritual, to offer the Light to the Ganges. Brahmans are one of the 4 castes of Indians and are said to have been born from the mouth of Brahma.
It’s a truly magical moment that I enjoyed each evening I was in Varanasi. If you click here is a full photo album.
And this a short video of the ceremony on the Ganges, powerful!