Story and Photos by Lee Daley
in Varanasi, as the sun’s glow edges the horizon beyond the River Ganges, the local boatmen are already up and about, readying their craft for visitors to the holy city. I sheepishly scan the shore, wanting to find just the right boat for this momentous journey, a ride along the waters. Liking the looks of a bright blue dinghy sized vessel near the shore, I feel blessed when the boatman looks my way, smiles broadly and tells me his name is Chandran. Accepting his welcoming hand, I climb aboard, eager for the adventure. Before setting out, Chandran lights a miniature votive candle and nestles it in a niche on the boat’s prow. A wave of anticipation floods over me as he presents me with a fresh flower to float upon the waters—to let the river take it where it may. We are soon part of the scene-part of the magic-as Chandran navigates his boat close enough to the shore that I feel involved yet he keeps us at a polite distance from the faithful who line the ghats and bathe in the waters.
Devout Hindus religiously take a purifying dip with their morning prayers before beginning their day’s work. From the vantage point of being on the water, the scene of the bathers and worshipers often inspires–as it did in me–a sense of spirituality–in even the most jaded. It’s a timeless setting, a living fresco.
The spiritual center of India, Varanasi rests on the most sacred stretch of the Ganges. Sanctified by Shiva’s eternal presence, the “City of Light” is foremost among the 12 sites where the god burrowed and then burst into the atmosphere in a brilliant column of light. Leading up from the river, about 87 broad steps known as ghats are backed by a cliff-like array of temples, shrines and towers. Because Varanasi is situated along the western bank of the Ganges with the river flowing south to north, daybreak dawns dramatically to the east where fields and trees embrace the first light of day. As the sun rises, it casts a golden glow on the holy waters and the bathing ghats, eventually warming the temples and shrines above the steps while the sky shifts color from pink to purple to blue.
At the same time, a priest performs a thousand year old ritual called aarti. In a daily rite of consecration to the sunrise, he repeatedly hoists a flaming brazier skyward. The flames signify purification. Along the ghats that ascend above the waters, pilgrims perform morning rituals. Many of the ghats are noted for their individual mythology and legends and some are actually privately owned. Take your time to meander. You’ll soon find every one has its own story, its own ambience. One ghat, Dashashwamedh, located near Vishwanath Temple, is one of the oldest and most spectacular. You can observe a century-old dedication here each evening when priests perform a Worship of Fire dedication to Lord Shiva, the River Ganges and the universe.
During my month-long travels in India, I can honestly report that I felt safe pretty much everywhere I traveled. Varanasi was no exception. My usual routine was to rise early and greet the sun. India is one of the most photogenic places on earth and the stunning light of early morning had me up and out at the crack of dawn. Upon my return, I would enjoy a leisurely breakfast at my hotel or guesthouse before heading out for a full day’s exploration. In each city or village, I concentrated on specific places I had researched and wanted to see. But, I let serendipity guide my footsteps as well.
For instance, on my sunrise saunters along the ghats, I observed an elegant white haired man who looked directly into my eyes as I neared. I couldn’t help but notice his green eyes, so uncommon in one of Indian heritage. His smile was as alluring and bright as the sun. Although we didn’t exchange words, his direct gaze and energy welcomed me so warmly I was at once swept into his space. I felt somehow serene, at peace, connected. I motioned to my camera. He nodded approval. After thanking him with many Namaste’s, I said goodbye and continued my stroll. I had barely taken a few steps when two young Indian men approached as they climbed down from the above terrace. Evidently they had been watching my interaction with the green eyed man. “You are very fortunate,” one said. “That man is a Brahmin. He is very special and you should feel honored. He usually keeps very much to himself and he has welcomed you.” I agree. I had indeed been honored.
Varanasi is where the living come to seek the blessings of Shiva and Mother Ganga. At the end of life, many travel to Varanasi, especially to the Ganges, to spend their last days. It’s a tradition marking the transition into another stage of being. Muslims believe that ending life in Varanasi offers moksha, liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Here in Varanasi, the beating heart of the Hindu universe, it is believed the site radiates endless energy. Hindus feel that a single dip in the River Ganges will wash away the sins of a lifetime.
If you go: My lodging in Varanasi at the Ganga View Guesthouse at Assi Ghat was steps from the Ganges yet high enough above it to give an overview of the sacred river from the open-air upper terrace where I enjoyed morning tea and toast. Each evening the guesthouse serves a buffet dinner in the common room where guests mingle, share a table and exchange travelers’ tales. Elegant in their simplicity, the guest rooms feature marble floors and French doors along with a spiritual ambience.
Ask at the guesthouse or at your hotel for a cyclo driver to drive you through the nearby streets lined with shops selling brilliantly colored silk saris.
Another Varanasi lodging option: While not on the river, Hotel Taj Ganges: offers a good travel desk, excellent service, delivers guests to the ghats for a boat ride on the river.
Visit India tourism information at: www.incredibleindia.org.
Ganga View Guesthouse can be contacted at http://www.hotelgangesview.co.in/
This article was originally published in July of 2016 and has been updated and expanded. For more on my India travels, see Related Article: In Dharamsala. Finding my Cup of Tea