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Some people have asked us where the most fascinating place we have ever traveled. There are way too many.  But one that tops the list is the city of Varanasi, the holiest city in India.

Situated along the bank of the sacred Ganges River, Varanasi is a place where Hindus aim to visit once in a lifetime. They come to participate in many spiritual rituals and to cleanse their sins by bathing in its purifying water. Witnessing the rituals for ourselves, as well as the chaos and  all things unexpected, was a truly fascinating experience albeit overwhelming.

Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and probably the oldest in India. Mark Twain described it as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”  That itself is fascinating. 

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Rickshaw traffic in Varanasi, IndiaWe looked forward to experience the spiritual atmosphere of the holy city of Varanasi. We found that it was also blessed with holy traffic, holy pollution, holy sea of humanity, and oh so many holy cows! It was pretty intense. We realized that it was not for the faint of heart.

Rickshaw traffic in Varanasi, India, IndiaIn our first evening in Varanasi, we  took a rickshaw ride and joined throngs of locals and pilgrims in weaving through the narrow crammed street to head to the bank of the sacred Ganges River, where a nightly spiritual ceremony was to take place.

Women on Rickshaw, Varanasi, IThis rickshaw carrying pilgrims was moving so slow; the traffic police gave the driver a beating.  Something we didn’t expect in a place where people seek for the sacred.

Crowds walking to Ganges River, Varanasi, IndiaWe got off the rickshaw and follow the thick crowd that was marching to the bank of the Ganges River.

People gathered on the Bank of Ganges River, Varanasi, IndiaWe reached the bank of the sacred river and people were already filling its ghats (steps) to witness the nightly spiritual ceremony called the Aarti.

Aarti Ceremony, Ganges River, Varanasi, IndiaAarti is a Hindu fire ceremony performed by Brahmin disciples to honor the holy river, Gods and deities. It takes place every night at around 7 pm rain or shire.

Audience at Ganga Aarti Ceremony, Ganges River, Varanasi, IndiaLike many people, we  hired a small boat and witnessed the ritual from the river.

Aarti Ceremony, Varanasi, IndiaThe ritual is a highly choreographed ceremony and includes blowing of conch shells, waiving lamps filled with incense, dancing with fire and chanting. 

Aarti Ceremony, Varanasi, IndiaDevotees believe that by attending the ceremony purification and blessings are bestowed upon them.

Votive Candles in Ganges River. Varanasi, IndiaMagnolia votive candles are sold all over the ghats. It is a common ritual for pilgrims to release them on the holy Ganges as they make a wish.  Hundreds of candles can be seen floating on the river each night.

Ganges River at Night, Varanasi, IndiaA cruise on the Ganges River revealed a more poignant scene. We came across the “burning ghat” where cremations take place night and day.

Cremation Bhat, Ganges River, Varanasi, IndiaVaranasi is also called the City of Death. Hindus believe that Varanasi is the most auspicious place die.  They believe that having their dead bodies washed and cremated on the Ganges and their ashes thrown in the river will liberate them from the cycle of life and death (reincarnation) and allow them to move to a higher plane of being.

Witnessing the rituals on the Ganges River this evening was a profound experience. The display of devotion from the pilgrims was deeply moving.  We went back to the Ganges to witness the rituals in early morning and found it even more fascinating – in spiritual, visual and bizarre kind of ways. We will share this experience with you in our .

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Related posts:

Photo Pick: The Taj Mahal

Varanasi: Morning Rituals on the Ganges River

The Temples of Khajuraho

India: A Walk Around the Town of Orchha

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