Sunday, October 25, 2015

A weekend in Varanasi

I made a visit to a school in North India that is going through the process of being authorized as a PYP school, and since I was in the north already Sharon flew up for the weekend and we went to Varanasi.  Varanasi is on the banks of the Ganges and is one of the oldest, continually inhabited cities in the world.  It is the spiritual capital of India.

Varanasi is famous for silk, perfumes and incense and as a place where the Buddha gave his first sermon (at Sarnath).  It's a major centre of pilgrimage, also a place where people bring their dead to be cremated and have their ashes strewn into the river.

We spent much of the first day wandering along the ghats - the steps - where the pilgrims perform their ritual bathing and pujas (prayers).  

Varanasi has at least 84 ghats, most of which are used for bathing by pilgrims and spiritually significant Hindu puja ceremonies in the morning and evening, while a few are used exclusively as Hindu cremation sites.

The Jantar Mantar observatory, constructed in 1737, is located above the ghats along the Ganges, and is adjacent to the Manmandir and Dasaswamedh Ghats.  It has a huge sundial.  We stopped for coffee in a rooftop restaurant right next to this observatory.

The extensive stretches of ghats in Varanasi enhance the riverfront with a multitude of shrines, temples, and palaces built tier on tier above the water's edge.

Other ghats were used as washing ghats (dhobi ghats) and the brightly coloured saris were laid out on the steps to dry.

The first evening and the  following morning we went out on a boat ride to watch the pujas. In the evening a group of priests perform "Agni Pooja" (Sanskrit :"Worship of Fire") as a dedication to Shiva, Ganga, the sun, fire, and the entire universe. In the morning we got up at 4 in order to get to the river while it was still dark.  We were able to take part in the morning puja at sunrise.

The Manikarnika Ghat is the primary site for Hindu cremation in the city. Adjoining the ghat, there are raised platforms that are used for death anniversary rituals.   Fires are kept going day and night as it takes around 3 hours to cremate a body.

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