From dawn to dusk on the west banks of the Ganges in the most sacred Hindu city
Varanasi is bathed in saffron as the sun wakes up, a steadily darkening glow that reflects off the Ganges river, slips up the stairs of the ghats that stretch up to the city from the bottom of the gently curving left bank of the river, and rushes into the narrow alleys that wind through pockets of neighbourhoods before hitting the major roads.
Situated on the river, the ghats—stairs going down to a river, usually a sacred one—are a character in and of themselves to the story of Varanasi. The stairs span the length of the entire bank and you can walk along the river by weaving up and down stairs or going around or over the broad brick railings and cylindrical dividers that separate some of the ghats. The stairs themselves slide into the water at the bottom, with the last visible step determined by the water levels of Ganges. At several points on the ghats are large landings where much of the activity takes place.
Varanasi is located in the southeastern part of Uttar Pradesh, a state in central-northern India. Drawing from the names of the two tributaries that feed into the Ganges where the city is located, Varanasi is the official name for the city, but there are many more names that come from the Hindu scriptures or local dialects. Of those, the two favourites are Kashi and Benaras. The former, Kashi—found in the primary Hindu texts stemming from the root Sanskrit word meaning “to shine”— is still used in reference to the city as a place of pilgrimage or sacred happenings.
According to my passport, I was born in Varanasi, but I have only ever known this city as Benares. The name is a corruption of Varanasi by residents of Eastern India, where “v” is pronounced as “b.” It was later adopted by the British, and went on to become the predominant name of choice, with “Benarsi” widely used to describe the particularities of the culture or behavior that characterizes its residents and way of life.
While my dad grew up in Benaras and my mother spent considerable time there in her youth, I’m the only one in the family who can claim Benaras as my place of birth. And yet, of the little time I’ve spent in India during my life, Benares accounts for no more than three days since I turned four. Odd, since it’s always the first place that comes to mind when I think of the country, and the image of the sun rising over the Ganges is the most vivid I have in my memories.
As your eyes take a few minutes to register the morning light, you’ll find the city permeates all your other senses: the clink of chai glasses punctuated with intermittent barking and cawing, spurts of music from the radios at passing stalls, ranging from classic ‘60s hits by Kishore Kumar to the latest Bollywood tunes and even some Lady Gaga. You can hear the echoes of the city above, angry warnings and retorts passed between cycle rickshaws and pedestrians. Rickshaws are the primary vehicle-for-hire in Varanasi, and the yellow tops of the auto rickshaws are the perfect shade to complement the orange that envelops the city.
The auto rickshaws, like cycle rickshaws, can only leave you at the top of the ghats. With 87 in total, the ghats are places of both mundane and sacred daily rituals. There are also a few select ghats dedicated to cremation, though the number of people cremated has decreased to about 80/day due to major issues of pollution. This is an ongoing crisis that several NGOs are trying to combat.
That said, Benaras is an important site of pilgrimage as the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism. For many Indians, having one’s ashes dispersed along the ghats is as critical to their ceremony of last rites as the puja that accompanies it. The pyres, aglow with flames, are vivid against the starch white of the Hindu attire for mourning. The burning fire is a constant on the cremation ghats, even as the sky darkens into a black canvas for the flickering orange.
Fire is one of the main reasons why Benaras lives in a saffron-tinged bubble. It represents the emergence of light from darkness, the purging of evil, and the quest for light and illumination. Most importantly, these traits apply not only to Hinduism but also to Buddhism and Jainism. For Sikhs, orange is the color of deep joy, courage, and community.
There are multiple places of worship for all of these religions along the ghats, and their flags, religious items like saffron cloths or orange marigolds, and exterior design are all contributing factors to the shades of orange. Saints, religious or spiritual, also wear saffron robes to signify their renunciation of the material world. They, like the many women in brightly colored saris at the ghats who use the water for their daily needs, continue the sporadic glimpses of orange until it all blurs into one.
My uncle once said that you could feel the history in Benaras, something sacred and mythological, though he’s not the least bit religious. And he’s right. It’s a sense that there was something there before. Something that goes beyond the human or the conceivable. The city practically vibrates with history, and rightly so. As one of the oldest living cities in the world, Benaras is steeped in culture, religion, and spirituality. It embodies the contradictions of the whole nation within its borders, being busy, yet peaceful; religious yet practical; sensible, yet utterly chaotic.
“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” — Mark Twain
There a million things that’ll invade your senses upon arrival in India. You’ll smell cow dung and tandoori chicken in the same go, taste spices that’ll have steam coming out from your ears and nose, feel the bumpy roads go slippery with the rain and see just about everything you thought you would and then more. But in Benaras—Kashi, Varanasi, or whichever name you wish to call it—it is the saffron color you’ll notice first on each trip to the ghats.
As the boats that dot the water start moving back to the ghats, the river is once more painted orange by the setting sun. As the chants and bells of the nightly “agni puja”—worship to fire—on the Dashashwamedh Ghat come to a close, the numerous offerings of fire and flower sitting on a banyan tree leaf float into the river, mirroring the flicker of the still-lit pyres.