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Varanasi: Hinduism’s Sacred City

For Hindus, a pilgrimage to the holy city of Varanasi is a lifetime goal.

A Brahman woman in the south of India rises every day at four o’clock, prepares a cup of coffee, and then sits before a thickly bound book in which she writes the name of the Hindu god, Shiva, over and over again. She has already filled two large books. When this book is completed, her wish is to make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Varanasi, where she will pray and offer her books to Shiva by immersing them in the river Ganges.

Varanasi, also known as Benares, the name given to it by the British, has been the religious capital of the Hindu faith since the dawn of history. Located along the western bank of the river Ganges in the state of Uttar Pradesh, its name is derived from two smaller rivers which converge there, the Varuna and the Assi.

From time immemorial, it has been the cherished dream of all devout Hindus to make a pilgrimage to Varanasi at least once in a lifetime. A visit to the shrines and the temples is to be assured of eternal salvation. A bath in the holy waters of the Ganges is to be purified of all sin. And to die in Varanasi is to reach the ultimate goal of the devout: the release from the endless cycle of rebirths.

Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world. When Buddah delivered his first sermon at nearby Sarnath in 500 B.C. Varanasi was already an ancient town. Through centuries of invading and occupying armies Varanasi remained steadfastly Hindu.

Varanasi is the city of Shiva. Shiva is one of Hinduism’s mightiest gods and the worship of Shiva is one of the oldest cults known to man. Shiva the destroyer represents power in all its manifestations: the fierce ascetic, the demon slayer, the lord of creation, and the symbol of male fertility.

In the Hindu scriptures and by word of mouth, the belief has been handed down that Shiva once told the goddesses: “The city of Varanasi is my place of utmost mystery… All the evil accumulated in a thousand previous lives is destroyed for one who enters Varanasi…If he lives here, a man goes to the supreme abode of Shiva, where there is no birth, old age, or death. And so the belief, the spiritual power of Varanasi, has held tenaciously through the centuries.

However, for the non-believer, especially a westerner, the spiritual attraction of Varanasi might not, at first, be obvious. Initially, one is more aware of the crowd and the noise. The city is a maze of alleyways and lanes, teeming with people on bicycles, rickshaws, and scooters who honk their way through the throngs. Sometimes the volume becomes so thick that everything comes to a complete halt. Merchants, catering to the needs of the pilgrims, yell out their wares from roadside shops: prayer beads, flowers, small jugs in which to carry home Ganges water, souvenirs and food.

Only when the sound of temple gongs and bells filters through the din is one reminded of the spirituality of Varanasi. It is a city with more than 2,000 temples, most of which were built in the last 200 years following Muslim invasion and destruction. The main temple, Vishwanath or the golden temple was originally constructed in 490 A.D. It was destroyed twice, and the present structure was built in 1777. It is one of thirty-three temples along a traditional route which a pilgrim must visit in his quest for salvation.

At each temple, the idols are worshipped with offerings of flowers and food. Although Shiva is the main diety, a myriad of other Hindu gods are worshipped. After a day’s visit by hundreds of pilgrims, the air of each temple becomes thick with the smell of incense and the floors strewn with the delicate petals of jasmine and other flowers.

Leading away from the temples, and down to the river, are the stone steps, or ghats. There are about seventy altogether, extending along almost four miles of river bank. Along the ghats, especially at dawn, one sees and feels the essence of all that is India.

A hubbub of activity engulfs the visitor and carries him away, off into another world. People are scattered up and down the wide steps. Some are sitting, watching and waiting. Others perform yoga exercise in the nooks and cranies of the buildings high above the river. Ascetics, their bodies smeared in ashes, stare in prayerful meditation. Farther down the riverbank, women can be seen washing their sari’s. Laid out to dry on the hot stone steps, the sari’s make a colorful mosaic pattern.

In another direction, smoke rising from the funeral pyres darkens the sky. Hindus cremate their dead, and since it is their ultimate goal to die at Varanasi, the cremation ghats are kept in perpetual use. Hindus are not repulsed by death and are taught about the transitory nature of life from childhood. Therefore, the sight of dead bodies wrapped shroudlike in silk or linen and carried through the streets on their way to be cremated is no cause for special notice.

Despite all the various activities which may be going on along the riverbank, most people have come for one purpose only: immersion in the river. The Ganges (Ganga ma, or Mother Ganges, as it is known on the subcontinent) is the most sacred river in all of India. Long before the birth of Christ, people have been bathing in its waters and performing their prayers and ablutions. It is an action that has been repeated over and over again, frozen in time.

Hindus believe that sanctification is achieved once they have bathed in the waters of the Ganges. It is also believed, in spite of the pollution, that the water is pure. Pilgrims carry some home with them and keep it for years, claiming it will never spoil.

Side by side, Hindus from all walks of life, from all parts of India, pray to the gods in their blessed river. Rich and poor, north Indian and south Indian, Brahman and non-Brahman, all are one in their common pursuit of eternal salvation. The goal of attaining freedom from rebirth has brought pilgrims to Varanasi for centuries. It is why the woman from the south of India rises every day at four o’clock in the morning.

Jeannette Isaac has been to India three times and frequently writes about the sub-continent.

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