• Russell Roy

Varanasi on the Ganges River

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

The name may not be familiar but odds are you’ll recognize it by looking at a couple of photos. You’ve likely seen it on National Geographic or the Discovery Channel or somewhere else during your lifetime. Now you’re thinking, “Ah, the Ganges River thingy place. Varanasi, is that what it's called?”

Our first introduction to the Ghats began the afternoon of our arrival in Varanasi. We had anticipated this part of our trip only knowing what we’d seen on TV and a description in a travel book that said the Ghats were not to be missed during a visit to India. The streets leading down to the Ghats were typical of any other Indian city we had visited, however, the closer we got to the Ganges the narrower they became until at last they were really only passable on foot. Once past the narrow corridor the scene became panoramic. The city stopped at the river bank. There was nothing on the other side of the river. The Ganges River was right in front of you, along with all kinds of people, boats and even cows with crazy colours, smells and sounds. It was an assault on the senses. The colours were brighter, the sounds louder and smells, well, some good and others not so good.

A view looking across the Ganges.

There were your classic Hindu holy men nearly naked with only beards and painted head to toe in orange ochre. There were western hippies in deep meditation. There were people bathing, praying and others who appeared to be going about their daily business. Surely we would have stood out too because we certainly did not fit in.

It was nearing dusk so we did not have to wait long for the traditional Brahmin ritual to begin after sunset. It turns out that we’d end up seeing it twice during our visit. Once was from the shore and the other time from a boat on the river. It consisted of a synchronized choreography of fire, incense and music. It was pretty spectacular given its backdrop.

The next morning we awoke predawn to witness the sunrise from a boat on the Ganges. That effort provided a great opportunity to experience Varanasi to its fullest. All of the action is on the west side of the river so the rising sun shed a whole new vibrancy on the already colourful Ghats. The predawn stillness was broken by the many people taking their ceremonial bath in the river while the smoke from the cremation Ghats hung in the air. Needless to say, it is a truly interesting place to behold.

Our afternoon was spent near the river amongst the ancient small alley ways and streets. What struck us was the sheer number of temples and shrines that occupied every nook and corner. It was easy to understand why this place is considered to be amongst the holiest of all places in the world.

From a western perspective, the Ghats at Varanasi are difficult to comprehend. The Ghats are simple enough to explain. You can find them at holy sites all over India. They are simply a set of stairs leading down to water. The interesting piece is all of the other activities surrounding the Ghats. The Varanasi Ghats are reputed to be holiest of places for the Hindu religion and they are undoubtedly one of the most spiritual places on earth. If you are Hindu, dying at Varanasi is the favoured final resting place for followers, which includes a public cremation along the river banks where the funeral pyres in the photo below burn 24 hours a day.

Our evening was spent as we had begun our morning. We were on a boat on the river. Music played on the shoreline and colourful ceremonies played out all under the smoky haze of the cremating bodies. We had come full circle.

Regardless of your faith, a pilgrimage to Varanasi is well worth the experience.