Varanasi was for me one of the most profound places to visit during my trip. The allure and magic of spiritualism just oozes out of every nook and cranny of this holiest of cities.
Varanasi, the ancient city of Kashi ( the luminous one) , is one of the oldest continuously lived in cities of the world. The first archeological artifacts found in Varanasi dates back to the 18th century BC, founded by the Vedic People. In antiquity it is also most famous for the foundation of Buddhism and its deep spiritual love affair with Lord Shiva. According to legend it is said, that Varnasai was founded by Lord Shiva, who’s spiritual waters of the Ganga flows from his naval through his head and out into the river Ganga. It has such cultural and spiritual significance that it is also said, If one dies in Varanasi, one has reached Moksha Nirvana ( the end of the cycle of re-birth and death).
Varanasi is also known by another name, Benares. In the 15th Century, the Mughal empire took a hold of the city, like they did most of India, and made Benares their second capital. During the early periods, the temples dedicated to Hindu Gods were ordered to be destroyed. It wasn’t until the revered and feared Mughal Emperor Akbar, who commanded that two temples be resurrected in reverence to Lord Shiva, did Hinduism return full blown to this sacred city. Up until India’s independence in 1947, The city of Varanasi, was still called Benares. There are hundreds ( literally) of temples in Varanasi. A utopia of religious and spiritual sects, Varanasi has within it ‘s beautiful shores, architecturally astounding and beautiful Hindu temples , some which sank into the river Ganga, large mosques the most famous of which is Kashi Vishnawath Temple, Catholic churches, and buddhist temples.
Varanasi is also a very crucial place for the beginnings of Buddhism. In nearby Sarnath, The Buddha performed his first sermon and thus was the birth of buddhism. Varanasi also was the start of the Bhakti religion and the birth of Sikhism. While walking the streets and embankments of the city , one would experience an explosion of colorful touts from the hundreds and thousands of Sadhus ( Brahmin Holy men) some real, some fake , in their eclectic robes and hair dos , either asking for money ( fake) or offering blessings ( real) .
So much spirituality so much soulful bursts of energy, one can see or feel why this is definitely the holiest place in India.
We arrived in the evening after a quick flight from ( hour and a half) . This time we were prepared to pay overage charges on our bags ( a huge burden but we’ve accepted it) . We were met by our driver at the arrivals hall and was whisked away to our Hotel. We were staying at another Taj property, the Nadesar Palace. Now I’ve read and re-searched the hell out of this place, and was definitely someplace I needed to, or rather wanted to, stay. When we arrived to the gates of the Hotel, we noticed that there were two properties behind the gates. The first one to the right was the ultra modern Gateway Hotel Ganges Varanasi, and our Nadesar Palace. Once we passed through the gates we were told to get out. WHAT? You’re going to make us walk ? Our driver quickly took our luggage out , and within a minute, we heard horse steps. A horse drawn carriage came upon us out of nowhere, we were told to board, they loaded our luggage, and we were off in grand style through the sleep grounds on horse drawn carriage. We were in Awe and giggling like little school girls.
We pulled up to the hotel lobby entrance only to be met what one could assume to be the entire staff of the hotel. They were lined up and ready to welcome us like we were two traveling Maharanis returning to our palace home. There was a Sadhu who anointed us and blessed us as we arrived, and people giving us garlands of beautiful beads and leis and welcoming us both to the hotel. We were speechless.
Check in was a breeze and the best I’ve ever experienced. We were sat down on a lovely couch after crossing the beautiful marbled foyer and offered some refreshing drink. There we were met by every head of staff. First was the hotel’s chief manager who offered us his card and welcomed us. Next was the Chef who wanted to understand our dietary needs and requests. Who then proceeded to ask us when we would like eat this evening. We said 9 pm , and he was more then happy to allow us a nice few hours to unwind , shower ( we’ve been in the same clothes since 5 am at the Taj Mahal in Agra: Agra and the most beautiful symbol of Love: The Taj Mahal) and get ready for dinner. Next we were met by the head of household, who asked if we had any allergies and noted that Kelly did to anything down, and informed us that it had already been taken cared of. Then we met the head of the spa who offered us her card . We then took a nice photo, gave a quick signature, a quick tour of the small hotel and then we were off to our room.
We were staying in the Lord Branton Suite ( the previous owner and occupant of this “palace” , after the former Maharaja) next to Queen Elizabeth’s Suite ( yes it is and was her suite) . When we entered our room, we could not believe our eyes. Behind the elaborate french doors was a fabulously decorated foyer with lovely couches , tables and reading material, which bled into the formal dining room, which then led into the master bedroom with a drop dead gorgeous ensuite bathroom . In the dining room already framed, was a picture of Kelly and I that we took when we arrived just a few minutes earlier. I was later told that this was done to make us feel at home as if we live there. It was a very nice touch. There was a bath already drawn with beautiful rose petals inside and we proceeded to then bath/ shower and get ready for our dinner ( famished !!!!!)
When we were all dolled up and ready to eat a house, we headed down to what we thought was going to be our dining room. When we found out that we were actually going to be dining in the Maharaja’s pavilion for dinner, we were floored. To add to the already announcement, we were escorted through the gardens, as flower petals were thrown to our feet and the entire staff again, lined up and waiting for us. As we walked, large fire works went off on either side of us followed by large ariels. I no I am seriously not making this up at all. After we got to the pavilion, we were met by the Chef who introduced us to the menu for the evening. Since I’ve been dying to eat a satwik diet which is the purest of the pure, he had prepared for us in Thali style ( little bowls of everything) a most scrumptious dinner full of spice and tastes that I have come to love about India. We were oozed into our chairs by the beautiful melodies of the Sitar player and just enjoyed the beautiful balmy night. It was so quiet where we were staying. Is this how Varanasi is? Once our dinner was served, we were entertained by a dance group who told us the legends of the Gods and performed those legends in beautiful dance. Dinner was amazing, and now it was time for bed. I’m so excited to see what the day holds for us.
Nadesar Palace: The Palace is a tribute to Goddess Nadesari, which is why it is her namesake and has a shrine dedicated to her in the front of the Palace. The aura of spirituality that surrounds the Palace is further reinforced by the fact that it nestled among verdant gardens, mango orchards, and marigold and jasmine fields; here peace and tranquillity are inevitable. Formerly the palace for one of the local Maharajas, it was also part of the Indian Viceroy Lord Branton. The grounds are heavenly, and in the early mornings, I would enjoy a nice smoke and coffee ( all delivered in such stunning pageantry , even for something as simple as this) and enjoy the grounds, with its multitude to Peacocks who enjoy showcasing their beautiful feathers in their traditional dance.
Morning! I couldn’t wait to start the day. After such an elaborate entrance and dinner, I was wondering what the day would bring. I was up with the peacocks and asked for some coffee to which it was delivered in record breaking time. The staff here are really so nice they are like family. In fact you can read how satisfied I was here : Nadesar Palace: TripAdvisor Review The peacocks were out in full force, and they danced the morning away showing off their beautiful feathers. The morning felt beautiful and peaceful but I began to quickly notice how the heat just seems to creep in out of nowhere. I guess it was time to get ready. We received a call from the hotel to see when we would enjoy breakfast, and where. I decided we should dine in our room since there was such a lovely dining room , it would be a shame to let it go to waist. Kelly woke, to some disturbing news, her skin had a reaction to something she ate last night and it was not looking good. After breakfast we called the house doctor who came to look at her and offered her some remedies and instructed her to rest for a few hours.
While Kelly rested, I decided to finally take advantage of the Taj’s most famous product: The Jiva Spa. I made an appointment, headed down and was greeted by the Spa manager I met the night before. She just had this aura about her. She was from way up north next to the Nepal border, so her features were more of the Eastern Asian decent. I found her to be kind and fascinating. After looking though their menu, I decided on the Abisheka Experience. While she explained what was to be done to me, I started to break down and cry. Emotions just came over me and she was worried and asked what was wrong. I told her that right now at this moment, I am truly grateful and happy. This was definitely something my soul has been yearning for. She hugged me with her gentle soulful embrace and offered me her kindness. I drank a very soothing Tea, and while the room was being prepared, we talked for a bit. She like most employees of the Taj Group are, are very happy loyal employees. She told me that later on in the day she is going to go down to one of the Ghats ( river banks) that the hotel owns to go and clean and take care of the homeless and less fortunate. Something she and the hotel does on a daily basis. The hotel pays for all medical bills for routine check ups , feeds, cleans, and takes care of the ghats inhabitants. I fell even more deeply in love with this hotel and hotel group because of their sense of giving back is astounding. In a few minutes my elaborate room was ready and I was now ready for my Abisheka Experience: A steam bath that opens the skin pores and removes toxins from the body.The room was infused with fragrance and soft light and traditional indian incense . Soothing chants of the verses involving the goddesses of India’s seven holy rivers, created a truly beautiful aura of peace and sanctity. I was then stool where I was then bathed with the healing waters of the river Ganga ( it came from the north), followed by a milk bath, Pachanmuta was then applied to my body and rinsed off followed by soothing sandalwood paste and then rinsed again. By this time, my tears were flowing just as strongly as the river Ganga. I was in immense spiritual ecstasy . I was then laid on a table and had the most amazing hour long massage ever, all the while deep spiritual Vedic chants were being played as the healing touch of my masseuse cleansed and nourished my body mind and soul. It was true bliss.
We were supposed to meet out local guide who was a gift from Mr Bickson. I went down to let him know that Kelly is a little under the weather, and if it was ok with him, he could come back in a few hours. He agreed and was kind enough to understand.
After a few hours Kelly was like a new car, all brand new and ready to go! Our guide came back and met us and we were off to start our day. Dr. Shailesh Tripathi is an astounding looking man. He commands your utmost attention just by his gaze, and his voice is that of a God. We were truly impressed immediately upon meeting him. He informed us that we would be going to Sarnath today to see the birthplace of Buddhism , and will end the day on the River Ganga and ultimately with an Aarti ceremony on the banks of the river. We decided to wear all white today ( I know in India its a sign of death but I love white and we will be going to one of the cremation ghats anyways so why not show respect. )
Sarnath: Is an important holy sight for Buddhists. It is where the Buddha first delivered his first sermon and the Dharma. It is an archeologists paradise. Its structures which have been recently excavated, dates back to 500 BC. The beautiful stupas that adorn the place can easily transfer one back in time . 5 weeks after Gautama Buddha became enlightened, he traveled from Bodhgaya to Sarnath to spread his enlighten teachings. There is a museum in Sarnath that showcases artifacts from the time before the Buddha up until the most recent excavations. Dr Tripathi with his magnanimous mind, preached to us the importance of every artifact. He was like an important prophet sharing the word of God , with his enigmatic voice echoing through the halls drawing in crowds of people who made a semi-circle to hear his words ( even if they didn’t understand him at all as he spoke english) Everywhere we went in the museum, people followed us to hear his tales , his gospel, and his scientific explwmantions. Dr Tripathi you see, also sits on the board of archeological scientists for Varanasi and India. HE is an acclaimed historian and archeologist, and we soon realized that the gift that Mr. Bickson gave us , was the gift of knowledge in the form of this worldly teacher. We were super blessed. Entrance to the archeological site and museum of Sarnath is relatively cheap.
After Sarnath, we decided we wanted to continue the day and go into the town of Varanasi and we also wanted to attend the nightly Aarti ceremony ( prayer ceremony ). We were dropped off about half a mile from the river Ganga as the traffic was crazy. Dr Tripathi knows what he’s doing, and had the car and driver stay in a car park while we went on our way to explore the city. Ahhhhhhh Choas.. The good kind of course. There now seemed to be thousands of people everywhere and the colors are so vibrant . We made our way past many sitting sadhus smoking their reefers which added to all the different smells of the city . We were immediately informed by the good doctor ( hahaha just had to ) that if a Sadhu comes to you with his hand up , he is a fake , but if he comes to you with his palms in a giving downward motion, he is offering prayer and is real. Sadhus are not to beg but to be given out of the kindness of the strangers heart, and in turn offers a blessing.
We stopped on the side of the road amongst a multitude of shops , wondering cows, and naked children relieving themselves with the help of their colorful mothers, anywhere they could, to have some chai. I was told about the famous Chai masala of Varanasi by a co-worker who said once you’re done drinking the delicious drink served in an earthen terra-cotta cup, you smash the cup on the ground. Well, she wasn’t kidding, and it was a really fun thing to do.
We finally made our way to the banks of the River Ganga. The Ganges as it is referred to in western civilizations, was called such because the brattish didn’t quite understand what the locals were truly saying . Ganga ( mother Ganga the goddess) is the name of the River, Ji is a term of endearment like aunty Ji, baba Ji ( revered father) etc. So when the locals called her Ganga Ji the British thought they were saying Gangeeeez. Oh gosh another complete destruction of a word. :0 As we entered the banks, there were temples everywhere as well as young priests, cows, and holy men. People were praying anywhere and everywhere and once you walk down those huge steps to the river front, there is definitely a feeling of AWE. I made it, I made it to the holy river Ganga. A lifelong dream. Yes it looks and “is” dirty. There are little boats everywhere and people bathing everywhere for the waters have healing properties and is also one of the most holiest waters on earth. We passed over a few little river boats until we came to one that Dr Tripathi had booked. We boarded and was met by a very young girl who he favors and takes care of , carrying a few baskets of flowers and candles.
Flowing through the river and for the first time, seeing the magnificence of this Holy city, my heart stopped, and I couldn’t hold back my tears. I’m an emotional reck in India ! hahah. Dotting the small sky line, is a plethora or stupas and temples, animals, people, yogis, and the distinct air of holiness. Dr Tripathi did a little chant and song and we were off floating down the river towards the burning Ghats ( the Cremation Ghats) . We were told the to be respectful and cover up. To which I did whole heartedly out of respect.
The Cremation ghats were packed with people and little carriages covered in flowers. I didn’t realize it then, but those little stretchers/ carriages , carried with it the body of the recently deceased covered and adorned with the most beautiful flowers. A few pyres were going in full blasé and the plumes of smoke kissing the sky and air brought chills to my skin. The circle of life for those who were fortunate enough to be cremated in Varanasi had come to an end. They had reached Moksha. A beautiful thing to see and to know that these souls are finally free. We learned that in the near distant future, there may be no more wood left to burn as the consumption of wood has caused massive deforestation and now there are only a few left to provide the 1 billion people the option of being cremated on a wooden pyre. There is of course an electric one, but i guess that just takes aways from the romance of it all. We also learned a very important lesson. There are only 3 types of people who cannot be cremated in Hindu ideology. 1. Babies: Babies cannot be cremated because they are already holy and pure and are still a part of Shiva. 2. Pregnant Mothers because they hold in them the purest of souls. 3. Those who died by cobra bite. They have already received the blessing of Shiva ( who the cobra is attributed to) they are then weighted down and sunk into the bottom of the river. Don’t worry you may be unlucky to see a floating baby, but the River’s secret hardly ever seen river dolphins will take care of them for you. Not so beautiful , but to know the spiritual side of it sends a nice calm relief.
We said a prayer for our all dearly departed. Just before my trip, I lost an uncle, so I said a lovely prayer for him, lit candles and sent them and a packet of flowers on its way in the river. It was beautiful and very cleansing.
We then went back up the river as the sun began to slowly set, staring off at the beuatufil landscape of the city. Everyone is now gathering around the center of the prayer aha Dashashwamedh Ghatt, for its about to be Evening Aarti. A group of priests daily in the evening at this ghat perform “Agni Pooja” (Worship to Fire) wherein a dedication is made to Lord Shiva, River Ganga (the Ganges), Surya (Sun), Agni (Fire), and the whole universe. ( courtesy of Wikipedia)
We sat and waited so very close to one of the main alters . The sight was unbelievable. People were coming in from everywhere, from the city, and even from the river. There were thousands of people all ready to worship. I was in complete and utter awe. I heard some beautiful music being sung and my spirit was ready to receive .
The young priests started to arrive and adorn each of the 7 alters with garlands, incense and fire. We were then approached by one of the young priests who was on our alter we were seated by and asked to come down to the river. We were then given different things to offer the goddess Ganga. Milk, Honey, Grass, water, and flowers. Was this really happening? With our offering, the entire ceremony started. I can’t recall the exact order of things, but the rituals surrounding this prayer hour was unbelievable. Bells were ringing,fire was being offered to all four corners along with chant and music. It was spiritually divine.
When the Aarti was over, like a mad rush of a heard running towards feed, the entire banks of the river started to empty out. Thousands of people were going back to their homes, and we, were trying our best to traverse the crowds, not loose Dr. Tripathi, and find our driver. We took a rickshaw and that alone was a hilarious debacle. There is no concept of direction and even an accident occurred. It was truly entertaining.
The next morning was elections day for Varanasi. I forgot to mention that during our visit to India, it was one of the most important election years in history. Modi, a humble candidate from humble beginnings ( he comes from a chai wala ( tea ) family) was going up against the incumbent Gandhi family. Every city we were in Modi was campaigning in. So Today was a day for their elections so it was a quiet day. We decided to go and see some silk makers , to which Varanasi is famous for in antiquity. Silk trade is definitely big business here. We saw some silk makers and their process of making rugs and clothing. Shopped a little but not much at all, and decided to head back to the hotel for some cooking lessons. On our way to the hotel, we heard bombs exploding , but later found out it was actually fireworks. It seems Modi captured the city of Varanasi and the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Back at the hotel, the chef was ready for us and anxious to show us how to cook some simple traditional indian cuisine. We went into the garden , as all ingredients for their menus come from their own private gardens. We identified the different spices and learned how to apply them to make certain dishes. I’m not a cook at all, infant I don’t know really how to cook but boy can I order. Kelly on the other hand is an exceptional cook and took this cooking class seriously. It was a nice way to pass the day.
We spent the rest of the day just enjoying the solitude offered by the hotel. It was such a peaceful rest of the day. I got to journal, which i’ve been doing throughout my trip and the day ended with another splendid dinner we ate in the sanctity of our room. BTW it was the first time we had to share a bed. Our friendship had really grown stronger and it was such an amazing feeling to share all these experiences with a close sister. The next morning will be an early one for us as we were going to greet the sun as it rises, on the River Ganga.
We woke early and had a small meal of the left over daily fruits they deliver to our room without a miss. Kelly has grown to love a certain type of mango that she had back in Mumbai and had taken a fancy to trying all the local mangos of each region. After all it is MANGO season in India.
Dr. Tripathi met us in the lobby on the dot. It was 5 am, and we headed to the banks of the river Ganga. The city was quiet, with some worshipers and priests heading out for their morning Puja ( prayer). We boarded our boat and set off into the calm quiet waters of the river. Dr. Tripathi said a few prayers and we listened with all our hearts. I was so entranced by the water I just wanted to jump in. I did coat my head with a few drops of the water and felt the energy flow through my body. The sun in the distance, showed us his fiery head and we were filled with excitement. As we greeted the sun, and the day, I made an offering to the river and a small prayer of gratitude and of blessings. I missed my mom and dad at this point and was praying for their safety and health.
As we returned to the banks of the river, there was life everywhere. We floated a bit more to the north before disembarking to see the daily life of the people . There were the young priests doing their yoga, a sadhu in deep contemplation and meditation, an elderly woman going for a bath, children and families enjoying the healing blessings of the water, and the dancing light on the temples and buildings welcoming the new day.
Up until this point, all we knew of Varanasi was the river, the main Ghat, and our hotel. So Dr. Tripathi took us to see the real Varanasi with her winding streets, hundreds of temples, wondering cows, specialty crafts people , and her beautiful residents. We came across a woman sweeping , to which I was entranced with. The aura she was giving out was beautiful , even though she was buy doing her daily work. I was told later that she is of the sweeper class, the lowest of classes, the untouchable Caste. I was floored. I couldn’t believe the caste system still is in existence today. According to him, it is very sad that many indians still believe in the caste system. We finally came across a small little shop, where the owner had the special nuts that are famous in india and prayer beads. We sifted through what we wanted and to which each item was blessed. It just so happen that the owner’s mother also makes the best Chai Masala in the city ( they all say that btw) . So we sampled some Chai Masala, and I bought the masala that goes into the tea to make it Chai Masala .. hahahaha.
We needed to get back to our hotel to pack and to get ready to leave. This is where Kelly and I will say goodbye for a few days. She’s off to Rishikesh to join an ashram for a few days, and I will be off to Bodhgaya to follow the footsteps of Gautama Buddha and to see where he became enlightened under the Bodi tree. I’ll spend 3 nights there, and one back at the Nadessar Palace in Varanasi before flying to New Delhi for a night On my way to Rishikesh. So in total Kelly and I will be on our own for 5 nights. I’m excited but will miss her dearly.
I will be leaving first , as it takes roughly 4.5 hours by car to get there. And my drive there is another story yet to come. Kelly will be flying a little later so it was goodbye for now. Upon my departure, just like my arrival, the entire staff was there to see me off. As they would do when I returned and left again 4 days later. It was quite an experience and really leaves a mark on your soul and memory.
Upon my return 4 days later, it was like I never left. The hotel graciously gave me the same suite Kelly and I shared , even though I paid for only a small room. Everything was the same, and I was so glad to be back after my not so great trip to Bodhgaya. I asked the hotel to book me a rickshaw to get to the river and inner city , to which my lovely spa manager whom I truly adored, told me that I should also go with a guide, as it will not be safe for me to travel alone. Worried and concerned for my safety I decided to go ahead and get a guide, even though I didn’t need one. All I wanted to do was to go and see the Aarti from a different perspective, from behind the glamour of the area we sat and be with the people.
My guide was crazy he thought I wanted to buy everything . I informed him that I had already had the best guide on earth Dr. Tripathi, and he quickly shut up and stopped trying to tout me int seeing his family stores and best Chai Masala. I asked to be alone, and that I would meet him at this designated spot once the Aarti was done.
When I got to the steps and the banks of the river, it was a bit different. Up until now I’ve shared my moments with others and now I will share them only with myself. I sat down and stared at the river, and at all the people coming and going. People were starting to arrive and find their seats for the evening ceremony. Scattered around the steps were lots of cows. Feeling my sadness, and my love, they came to me. Seriously, they came to me. One laid down next to me, another kept giving me kisses and rubbing her face on mine and eventually laying down and putting her face in my lap. I started to weep like crazy , my emotions took the better of me and I couldn’t control it. I felt so honored. The cow is the holiest animal in India, and they chose me. Other Indian locals were staring at me in wonderment and came over to touch me and touch my feet and ask for my blessings. It was really an experience that is still etched in my mind.
The Aarti started, and I enjoyed the pageantry of the ceremony. I was so full of spirit and grateful for this experience. I left fulfilled , in love with life, in love with India, and my spirit was completely recharged.
I headed back to my hotel for my last fantastic meal, had the best sleep and dreams ever and left the next day saddened to be leaving this lovely city and this family feel hotel, but excited to join sister Kelly in Rishikesh….
Varanasi, thank you ! Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I’ll see you soon, that is a promise I’m going to keep