An Eternal City on the Banks of the Sacred Ganges
Every Hindu yearns to visit Varanasi at least once in his or her life. Once called Kashi (“resplendent with divine light”) and later Benares by Britain’s empire builders, Varanasi has been the religious center of Hinduism throughout recorded time.
The earliest settlement of this 3,000-year-old city (one of the world’s oldest) began on the west bank of the Ganges River, believed by Hindus to hold salvation in every drop. Boats for hire take you along the revered waterway at dawn, when the light and the scenario are the most magical. One hundred or so broad ghats (stairs) lead down to the river, where it might seem that the better part of this city of one million people heads every morning for daily ablutions.
Most of the bathers are old, since devout Hindus come here hoping to die, thus achieving instant nirvana and freeing the soul from the normal cycle of birth and rebirth. Hindus bathe in the river, drink from it, wash their clothes in it, and perform their contortionist yoga positions along its banks, which are lined with hundreds of temples and pilgrimage houses. Their bells and gongs only add to the surreal atmosphere as the sound of the conch shell welcomes the sun’s first rays reflecting off the Ganga Ma, Mother Ganges.