Varanasi II: The Hindu Riviera

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Blowing conchs at Assi ghat at dawn

The predominant experience of Varanasi is the permanently precarious nature of it, the common tightrope-walk hardly distinguishing between multiple near-death experiences occurring multiple times a day and the ongoing spiritual restoration. I also notice that I am not worried about my next meal, I feel a little out of place.

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Assi ghat at dawn.

The holiest part about being in Varanasi is praying that you reach your destination without bodily injury. Whether it’s tooling along in a tiny tuk-tuk without any cushioning and no shocks traveling at maximum allowable speed along roads that are dangerously punishing on your body, or simply walking the ghats through the tiny alleyways without being hit from behind by motorbikes weaving through, one simply has to grit one’s teeth and pray, or……just relax.

I woke at 4:30 to meet the boatman at 5 down by the river for the morning tour. One could hardly say one has been to Varanasi without doing this. The ride this morning was terrific.

As soon as we were underway, I felt the vibration of the ancient diesel all the way into my teeth. If I wanted to take a picture, I had to stand up to get any stability. The first few pictures were fuzzy because I couldn’t control the camera. When we got to places of interest, I had to ask the boatman to slow down.

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The former residence of the Maharajah of Varanasi–150 years ago. Notice the high-water line across the doorway.

Varanasi is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world–2500 years old. The culture as a whole is 5000 years old and people have been bathing in this holy river for a very very long time. Purification ceremonies are common practices of Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism. Where else do we immerse ourselves in the refreshing primal experience of new beginnings then at the edge of the water?

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At 5am, the Ganges is glassy calm. The tourist boats are already stirring–heading toward Assi ghat for the morning ceremony. A row of priests wield fire, incense, bells and conch, calling the gods in unison. From there we drift downriver toward Manikarika, the burning ghat.

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Crowds at the main ghat: Dasashwamedh

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Manikarnika ghat

Manikarika ghat: There seem to be 12 pyres. Each burning takes at least 3 hours. That’s 36 bodies every ~4 hours, or about 200 bodies per day. It takes about 500kg of wood to burn one body. That works out to 100,000kg of wood per day–max.

These ghats are not mansions of the wealthy, of course. We are passing the Hindu Riviera, some of the most valuable holy real estate in the world, where the five elements (earth, fire, air, water and space) meet, focusing and fueling human aspiration.

(see the guy in the 3rd floor window? That’s how high the river was in 1978)

They are the home of ritual, platforms for ceremonial purification, built in the 18th and 19th centuries by maharajahs from various parts of India and each dedicated to specific gods.

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The ghats are interspersed with guesthouses, housing for sadhus, and a few luxury hotels, although telling which is which is not so easy.

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Housing for sadhus only

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A 5-star hotel

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Alamagir Mosque built by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (17th C).

Ganges swimming club? Srsly?

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