“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Mark Twain.
Witnessing dawn on the banks of the Ganges River, in one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, is to be drawn into another era. Hindu pilgrims purify their bodies and souls; yogis fold their hands in salutation to the sun; and sadhus unwrap their marigold shawls against the backdrop of a funeral pyre believed to be burning for centuries.
Varanasi is older than Babylon and as emotive as Jerusalem.
Hindus believe that cremation on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, exempts the soul from cycles of rebirth to attain moksha, or salvation. Every day, 400-600 bodies are cremated on the ghaats. The river is the ferryman to salvation.
The Ganges River flows not only through space but also through time, mapping the Indian civilization with its current. Millions flock to bathe in its holy waters with the promise that it will purify their sin. The collective consciousness of the myriad forms of India is linked to the Ganges.
Varanasi, also known as Banaras or Kashi, is a spiritual capital whose influence is sewn into the colorful fabrics of Hinduism. It is revered by Hindus as Lord Shiva’s “city of light”. Buddhists visit Kashi because Buddha gave his first sermon in Sarnath, just north-east of the city, in 528 BC.
Varanasi has a thriving Muslim weaver community whose artisanship is renowned for silk, thread work and saris. It is home to generations of boatmen communities who live and work along the river. The boatmen are some of the 450 million people whose livelihoods, economic and spiritual securities rely on the Ganges.
It is no wonder that politicians, like Narendra Modi who pledged to clean the Ganges, leverage this city to win the hearts and minds of a billion people.
This spiritual capital contains the essence of Indian civilization. It hums with the drum of the ancient. Intellectuals, philosophers and artists have thrived with the city’s myriad rulers and will continue to do so for centuries to come.