Above: Boats along the waterfront of Varanasi’s old city. -photolibrary
Visiting India’s holiest Hindu city is a hypnotic, soulful experience that stays with you forever
By Christopher Kremmer
Manikarnika Ghat must be the world’s most bizarre tourist attraction. The bodies of Hindus, who believe that to die here is a passport to spiritual release, are burned before an audience consisting mainly of non-Hindus, who believe nothing of the kind. It is a somber place, with an inexorable rhythm that suits its business: cremating the corpses of Hindus whose wish to die in Shiva’s city has been granted. A soot-blackened mansion built by the maharaja of Indore overlooks an almost medieval scene, where the Dom—members of Hinduism’s untouchable caste—rake the smoldering pyres that burn night and day. Not far away, children play a kind of permanent one-day cricket final, devotees of India’s other “religion.”
Manikarnika is a compelling experience, especially if you come from a culture in which death has been sanitized. The process, which includes the Doms’ search for gold teeth or other valuables in the ashes, demystifies death, imbuing it with a commonplace dignity, as uncomplicated as a boat ride on the sacred Ganges.
Encrusted by tradition, Varanasi is a city that bakes on the Indo-Gangetic Plain of northern India, a baroque gem on a mystic river, known by differing names. It is Kashi. It is Banaras. It is Varanasi. Some of India’s greatest saints and poets—Tulsidas and Kabir to name two—have dwelt here, contemplating the meaning of life. Ordinary pilgrims congregate in their millions every year to wash away their sins in the holy river or to save their souls by dying beside it.
For at least 2,500 years, Varanasi has been a magnet for the spiritual and temporal business of northern India. It was thriving in the sixth century B.C. when Buddha preached his first sermon under a banyan tree at Sarnath, a town 10 kilometers away. During centuries of rule by Muslim princes, many Hindu temples were destroyed, but the city remained a bastion of Hinduism, not to mention a wellspring of wisdom in classical music, yoga, textiles, cultural studies, and Ayurveda, among other things.
I’d booked ahead to be sure of getting a room at an elegant guesthouse popular with scholars, artists, and writers. From the ougainvillea-draped veranda and roof garden of the Hotel Ganges View, the Ganges—Ganga to the locals—and its ghats (stepped embankments) provide a movable feast and holy cows comprise the bulk of the traffic, while barbers tonsure the sin-laden hair of Hindus preparing for their ritual ablutions.
Ganga means “that which goes,” and it goes 1,000 kilometers from Varanasi to the Bay of Bengal. Heavily polluted at some points, the river renews itself on the open reaches between the 100 towns and cities that dot its route. Sections of the shoreline in Varanasi are phenomenally filthy. It’s not unusual to see a human cadaver floating beside bathers. Yet stare at the slate-gray water for a while and you may also spot the snout of a Gangetic dolphin, a virtually blind mammal that navigates by echo-sensing.
The chai tray at the Hotel Ganges View had just arrived when my host Shashank, the son of an old Banarsi family related by marriage to the local maharaja, appeared on the balcony. A man of generous girth and spirit, he lives with his statuesque, silver-mantled mother and their beloved dachshunds in private quarters at the rear of the guesthouse. Bespectacled and mustachioed, Shashank cuts an elegant figure in his crisp white kurta. Originally from Bihar, his great-grandmother purchased a large tract of land at Asi Ghat, part of which was later donated for construction of the superb Pancharatna (“Five Gems”) Temple, dedicated to Rama, Krishna, Shiva, Vishnu, and Durga, a few doors up from their home.
“What a beautiful morning, nah? I hope you slept well,” said Shashank, pausing to give directions to a large tribe of houseboys moving one of the many pieces of colonial furniture that decorate the rambling residence. If he felt awkward sharing his childhood home with global gypsies, he concealed it gracefully, joining guests at the dinner table most nights to reminisce about the culture of old Banaras (also spelled Benares), the name used by the early Buddhists and adopted by the British.
Earlier that day I had undertaken the essential rite of any visit to Varanasi—a boat ride on the Ganges. It was a blue morning and I was crossing Anandamayee Ghat on foot when a boatman called Hiro made landfall and asked if I’d like a ride. Hiro’s paddles were oblong slats of timber painted blue, attached to bamboo poles that left arcs of concentric rings on the surface of the water, erased with each subsequent stroke. The sun had not yet risen, but the sound of temple bells and bhajans (hymns) floated across the water, interspersed with the creak of his oars and cawing crows. Thigh-deep in the water, the dhobi wallahs (clothes washers) grunted as they slapped wet laundry on the ghats, constructed by Hindu rulers 300 years ago. We glided through an armada of small votive lamps, set adrift with a prayer, flickering in the breeze, and the surface of the river whirled in eddies.
Hinduism is a rounded religion of philosophical beauty and symmetry. So it came as no surprise that smoldering Manikarnika Ghat, while being the end of the road for some pilgrims, was the start for others who embarked on the Panchakroshi Yatra, an 88.5-kilometer pilgrimage route that follows the boundaries of the sacred zone of Kashi. Completing this trek is one of Hinduism’s shortcuts to moksha—release from the cycle of death and rebirth. Considering myself a lost cause, I’d decided to undertake the spiritual marathon by car, just to see if it qualified as a worthwhile experience for non-Hindu visitors.
Pilgrims—knows as yatris—begin the Panchakroshi Yatra by bathing in the waters off Manikarnika, within sniffing distance of the cinders that fall from the funeral pyres. From there, they proceed to the city’s most venerated temple, Kashi Vishwanath, to take an oath administered by a priest before they set off.
Climbing the steep paths away from the river, I entered the capillary network of narrow lanes that forms the old city, a place where neatly uniformed children propitiate Hindu idols with milk and flowers on their way to school. In his offices adjacent to the temple, I meet with Chandranath Vyas Archarya, the oath-giver who keeps a pet cockatoo and blesses yatris undertaking the pilgrimage. When I told him about my car and driver, he wasn’t impressed.
“You must go by foot—barefoot!” he insisted. “You can do it in five days, and stay free in the dharamsalas [rest houses] each night.” But because Hinduism is a tolerant faith (even the gods cheat), and because I agreed to make a small donation, Vyas-ji kindly blessed me with the oath of completion. Seated on a stone throne, he gave me a handful of rice and instructed me to release a single grain each time he intoned the name of one of the 108 Hindu temples that mark the route. When he’d finished naming them all, I poured what remained of the rice onto the ground and received his blessing.
Before undertaking the journey, which has been followed by pilgrims since at least the 12th century, I had had the opportunity of speaking with Rana P. B. Singh, a retired professor of geography at Banaras Hindu University and the author of Banaras Region: A Spiritual and Cultural Guide.
“Banaras is the city of learning, burning, and sometimes, earning, but above all it is a place for pilgrims,” said the avuncular Professor Singh. “People do Panchakroshi in the hope that God will bless them and answer their prayers, say, by giving them a son. Others do it to have their sins cleared. The numbers are growing, but those doing it in the proper manner, barefoot and so on, is less. Now, there are even bus tours.”
Driving through the semi-rural outskirts of the city, where the number of fresh cowpats would make a journey by foot somewhat squelchy, I followed the trail through a series of towns and villages, some quaint, some not. The road is a spiritual border; everything to the right is considered sacred, everything to the left, profane. Land costs more on the right, and shrines tend to be on that side, while the 44 lodges serving the temporal needs of the pilgrims are opposite. Every pilgrim has his or her own favorite shrines; mine were Rameshvara, where an elegant colonial bridge crosses the Varana River, and Shivpur, which is home to some fine buildings and an old temple dedicated to the five Pandava brothers of the epic Mahabharata. Panchakroshi may not compete with the sights of Varanasi’s riverfront, but it does provide important context for those striving to understand the layered, sacred geography of the city. If, like me, you’d prefer not to walk—or would rather not go at all—visit the charming Panchakroshi temple. Nestled in a quiet lane below Alamgiri Mosque, it’s a colorful shrine with hundreds of sculpted deities representing the 108 shrines along the pilgrimage route.
Back at the Hotel Ganges View, I joined Shashank on a floor bolster as he played his favorite recordings of ragas and dhrupad singing, perfect for soothing mind, body, and spirit. A one-time painter, Shashank helps local artists sell their work by hanging it along the guesthouse’s veranda. He also employed traditional fresco painters to decorate the walls and ceilings of the rooms. Scholars of Indian philosophy and contemporary social issues are invited to give occasional talks, and musical soirees take place in the gracious central dining room under the gaze of his ancestors, immortalized in oil paintings. Shashank’s coup de grâce is an exquisite vegetarian menu devoid of eggs, meat, garlic, or onion (ingredients shunned by Hindu pilgrims as an act of sacrifice), but as flavorful as the best Indian cuisine. The absence of television, as well as eggs for breakfast, might challenge some travelers, but the pay-off is a retreat that keeps alive Varanasi’s unique mauj masti culture.
“We still have this culture of pleasure,” Shashank said, reveling in a piece by the doyen of the Indian violin, L. Subramaniam. “It’s a very mannered culture. I was taught there is a correct way to hold a glass. We treasured choti cheez—small things. It’s a beautiful life, but alas, it is changing.”
It’s a lament you hear often from old Banarsi families like Yashodhara Agrawal’s, who have lived in the same home for over a century in the Shivala district of town. “We have a love-hate relationship with Banaras—it’s better to visit than to live here,” said Dr. Agrawal, whose ancestors were Hindus who worked in the Mughal court. But with a doctorate in textiles, she was also quick to point out that the city is one of India’s preeminent weaving centers, specializing in silk and the intricate craft of zari, in which thread is wrapped in gold and silver, and then woven.
“It’s an ancient weaving culture,” Dr. Agrawal explained. “The craftsmen are acknowledged masters, and are choosy about the work they take on. It’s also a fully integrated trade, with both Hindu and Muslim weavers and traders well represented.”
For a city that loves small things, Varanasi parties in a big way—not that sort of partying (alcohol is officially banned in pilgrimage centers, although in practice you can get it), but the many religious and cultural festivals that crowd the lunar calendar. Among them is a unique theatrical production of the epic Ramayana. In the 16th century, the saint-poet Goswami Tulsidas took a classic of Hindu religious literature and transformed both the classic and the religion. The story begins with the marriage of Rama, heir to the powerful kingdom of Ayodhya, to the princess Sita. Soon after their marriage, there are machinations within the royal family and Rama is denied the throne and condemned to a 14-year exile, during which Sita is abducted by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, triggering a great war. Aided by an army of monkeys, Rama kills his adversary, rescues Sita, and returns to Ayodhya to claim his throne. Tulsidas’s rendition of the Sanskrit epic into the vernacular Hindu of northern India popularized Hinduism as never before. Today, performances of the Ramlilas (“Rama’s playful deeds”), based on his version, are staged annually in towns and cities across India in autumn. But the most renowned performance of all takes place in the town of Ramnagar, a few kilometers upstream from Varanasi.
In India, old habits die hard, and despite the presence of a newer bridge across the Ganges, locals still prefer the old pontoon crossing that they traditionally used to reach Ramnagar. The centerpiece of the town is a fort built by Maharaja Chet Singh in 1752. It’s home to the current maharaja, Anant Narain Singh—a figurehead only these days—who was unavailable when I called. In any case, I had someone more important to meet: an 11-year-old boy.
Down a narrow brick lane, I made my way to the home of the biggest star in Varanasi, to find he was not yet back from school. His grandfather, a big-boned Brahman who huddled under a blanket, told us that he too had once played the lead role in the annual Ramlilas, and that his grandson, Vinay Kumar Vyas, was the fourth generation in the family to win the coveted honor. Personally chosen by the maharaja from scores of candidates, the swarups (child actors) who play all the main roles must satisfy certain time-honored requirements. First, they must all be Brahmans; second, they must all be boys (even Sita is played by a boy); and third, their voices should be unbroken and their cheeks free of facial hair. Tall boys with fine features are preferred, playing lesser roles from the age of eight, with their careers effectively ending with the onset of puberty around 12 or 13. In June each year, after cast selection, the boys are taken from their families and housed in a run-down dharamsala not far from the fort, where they undergo intensive training for three months in the lead-up to the performance. Every morning they are woken at 5 a.m. to learn their lines, while artisans all over town build sets and plan the largest theatrical happening in India.
The Ramlilas at Ramnagar is no school play. It is, in fact, a cycle of performances running over 31 nights each year, drawing an average nightly audience of 20,000 people, and a total attendance of more than half a million. The open-air site stretches over 12 square kilometers, and includes major intersections, lakes, and even the fort. It has been staged annually in the town for almost 200 years and has been recognized by UNESCO as part of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.
At first sight, Vinay and his younger brother Atul, who plays the prince’s loyal brother, Lakshman, appeared to be normal, gangly schoolboys, but it soon became clear they’ve grown up fast in the spotlight and unrelenting pressure of the Ramlilas.“We don’t want to perform next year,” Vinay told me, when asked whether the brothers were enjoying their fame. It wasn’t the money (at less than US$100 for four months’ work, it should have been) or the loss of privacy. “Our education is suffering,” he said in deadly earnest. “We have to miss school for three months to take part in the play.”
It was approaching dusk on the 17th night of the cycle when I witnessed the magic of the Ramlilas. It was a big night, not so much for battle scenes, but for Rama’s darkest moments in the hours when he learns that Sita has been abducted, and when India’s humblest people and animals—a vulture, the monkeys, and a low-caste woman—step forward to help him find her, or lose their lives trying.
A crowd had assembled at Panchavati Crossing, normally busy with traffic, now a vast open-air theater. They were villagers from the hinterland, mainly, many of them illiterate, but drawn by the power of Rama’s story and the prospect of a big night out. The price of admission suited their pocket: it was free. Just then, the maharaja—whose patronage funds the entire cycle—made a dramatic entrance, seated in a swaying howdah high above the ground on the back of one of his elephants, signaling that the show must begin. Drums pounded and cymbals clashed, and two young boys wearing gold crowns and holding bows and arrows stepped forward through the crowd. Caked in makeup and festooned with garlands, mirror-work armbands, and shoulder-length wigs, they were so heavily costumed that their small faces were barely visible. Reaching his appointed position, Rama paused and began to wail in a high-pitched, grief-stricken voice. There were no microphones, but his voice carried effortlessly across the heads of at least 20,000 people standing in pin-drop silence. The abduction of Sita was no distant tragedy; the horror and shame of it were palpable in the crowd, as if it had happened that very day.
Resuming my perch on the balcony of the Hotel Ganges View the next morning, I decided that a week in Varanasi is like a year anywhere else—a pleasant, contemplative year in which to withdraw into the soul. Days along the ghats are shaped by ancient ritual, beginning each morning with the Gyatri Mantra, which has played on Indian lips every sunrise in India for at least 3,000 years. Few places in this world are as profound or hypnotic, but then, as the locals say, Banaras is not part of this world. It is transcendent.
The worst part is leaving. As the poet Kabir—who was born a Muslim and died an enlightened lover of all religious traditions—once wrote: “Now tell me, O Ram, What fate is mine? I had left Banaras, So foolish was I!”
Christopher Kremmer is the author of Inhaling the Mahatma.
When to Go
As with much of northern India, the weather in Varanasi is at its most pleasant from late October through March; spring ushers in searing temperatures, while July sees the start of the monsoon season. One of the city’s most vibrant festivals, Dev-Deepawali, will be observed this year on November 2, when thousands of oil lamps are lit along the steps of the ghats. The 2009 cycle of the Ramnagar Ramlilas will run from September 3 to October 3.
Where to Stay
It’s hard to beat the hospitality and location of the Hotel Ganges View (91-542/231-3218; hotelgangesview.com; doubles from US$51), a 14-room heritage property at Asi Ghat. Varanasi’s most luxurious hotel, however, is the newly opened Nadesar Palace (91-542/250-3001; tajhotels.com; doubles from US$306). Refurbished by the Taj group, this former maharaja’s palace now offers paying guests the chance to stay in one of 10 opulent suites, which in years past have hosted such dignitaries as Jawaharlal Nehru, Queen Elizabeth II, and the Dalai Lama.
Originally appeared in the August/September 2009 print issue of DestinAsian magazine ( “Varanasi Visions”)