Posts Tagged ‘varanasi’

Color and Chaos on the Banks of the Ganges

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Minhazz Majumdar, Smithsonian Journeys GuideMinhazz Majumdar is a writer and curator of Indian art, and co-founder of the Earth & Grass Workshop, an organization promoting arts and crafts as livelihood. Minhazz has served as a development consultant for the government of India and for many Indian NGOs and has extensive experience leading groups through India. Most recently, Minhazz led Smithsonian’s “Mystical India” tour through Northern India.
Varanasi, the final destination of the Mystical India trip is one place on earth that cannot fail to move you. Love it or hate it, this city will leave its mark on you. A city that goes by several names, Varanasi, Benaras or Kashi, this site is believed to be the oldest continually inhabited place on the planet. Varanasi may be one of the most ancient cities in the world—but do not come here looking for old buildings or ancient ruins —you will be disappointed. Varanasi is all about ambiance, atmosphere, a certain mood, a vibe and the settings.

The ghats—the steps that lead down to the river—are the centers of life and action in Varanasi. And the river here is no ordinary river; it’s none other than Mother Ganges herself—the life-giving river, the holy river in which devout Hindus come to bathe and wash away their sins.

Along the ghat, one can see life play out in many ways. There are ghats where people come for bathing or a ritual dip in the river, for prayer ceremonies, for yoga, for religious training, for meditation and mindfulness. There are even ghats for washermen (dhobis) to ply their trade, washing all the dirty linen in the river. But most powerful are the burning ghats where Hindus are cremated. For devout Hindus, to die in Varanasi and to be cremated on the banks of the Ganga, with the ashes offered to the river is to achieve “moksha” or liberation from the continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

The winding and crowded city streets of Varanasi are no less action-packed. Every day is a celebration in this City of Light, the city that belongs to Lord Shiva, the powerful Hindu God of Destruction. To get to the ghats for our evening boat-ride on the River Ganges is a full-on sensory experience. We take our final rickshaw ride here–the streets are crowded, colorful and virtually a cacophony of people, animals, vehicles of all sorts, some with powerful horns which they do not hesitate to use.

No words are adequate to describe this ride—it has to be experienced to be believed. You feel your eyes cannot take in the color and chaos any more; your ears begin to feel sound, going beyond hearing; your nose is beguiled by the scents and the dust. It is one of the most exhilarating rides of your life. Suddenly, the rickshaw stops and you have to walk—your being is jostled by the crowd heading to the same place—the ghats. You are safe, you belong here, you are part of a larger whole, alive like you have never felt before.

A few minutes later or perhaps an eternity it seems, you reach the ghats where there are scores of people milling around, getting ready for the evening aarti (fire worship) ceremony. There is such fervor in the air, yet a sense of calmness pervades—instantly the clamor of the city streets is forgotten.

You make your journey down the steps to the river where the boatman is waiting, the journey on the river akin to the journey of life—from life to death to celebration. But that tale will have to wait for another time. It is time to let the ghats of Varanasi get under your skin.

Floating on the Ganges River.

Floating on the “Mother Ganga.” (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Muleonor.)

Ghants along the Ganges River in Varanasi.

Ghats along the Ganges River in Varanasi. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user ruffin_ready.)

Practicing Surya Pranam at the Ganges in Varanasi.

Practicing Surya Pranam at the Ganges in Varanasi. (Photo by Sadie McVicker.)

Boatman on the River Ganges in Varanasi

Boatman on the River Ganges. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Vasenka.)

Man sitting on the banks of the Ganges.

Man sitting on the banks of the Ganges. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Arian Zwegers.)

Varanasi at night

Varanasi at night. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user AinisR.)

Check out the “Mystical India” tour page for more information on Minhazz’s next trip.

The Spiritual Ganges River

Monday, July 6th, 2009

Sadie McVicker is an International Program Manager at Smithsonian Journeys, where she oversees tours to a variety of international destinations. She earned her Master’s Degree in International Relations from L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, while living and working in France for six years. She has worked for several diplomatic missions, including the Embassy of Japan in Paris, as well as those of Singapore and Morocco here in D.C. Click here for more on Sadie.

Practicing Surya Pranam at the Ganges in Varanasi. Photo: Sadie McVicker

Practicing Surya Pranam at the Ganges in Varanasi. Photo: Sadie McVicker

I never expected that a river in India would remind me of a traditional Anglo-American folk song. But while floating in a small boat at sunrise in Varanasi on the Ganges River, or “Mother Ganga” as it is affectionately called, the old folk standard made famous in recent years by Alison Krauss, “Down in the River to Pray,” came into my mind as I watched people along the shoreline praying, doing yoga, and saluting the sun in the ritual of Surya Pranam.

Our Smithsonian group had arrived in Varanasi the evening before, just in time to take a rickshaw ride down to the river for a starlit wooden riverboat trip to observe the various activities happening along the ghats (stairs leading to the river). We witnessed the Hindu aarti ritual to ward off evil, as well as the blazing funeral pyres along the shore further downstream. Watching these rituals up close was an immensely moving experience. I felt connected to all that was happening. I thought of other rivers with mystical significance, such as the Tiber and Jordan rivers, and thought how beautiful it is that there is a universal connection around the world between rivers and spirituality.

I was fascinated to learn that Varanasi, the most sacred city in India, is also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It was originally known as Kasi, “City of Light,” because Hindus believe that it is possible to reach the divine there, in the Ganges River. The whole Varanasi culture revolves around the river, the heart and soul of the city and of Hindu belief.

So many incredible sights, colors, sounds, smells, and beautiful cultural discoveries are forever etched into my memory from my Mystical India trip, but the experience of floating on the Mother Ganga stands alone in its mysticism and poignancy.

Click here to see Sadie’s photos from India.

Click here to learn more about travel to India.

Have you had a spiritual or mystical experience when traveling? Share below.