One of the world’s oldest living cities, Varanasi stands on the west banks of the Ganges. At dawn, Hindus gather by the riverfront to offer prayers to the rising sun and pay their respects to this sacred river that is believed to sustain life.
Varanasi is held as the most blessed of the seven holy cities in Hindu belief. Since the earliest days, pilgrims came to this city to pray for a good life and to face death with courage and equanimity.
The beginnings of this city are lost to time. It is said to be as old as Jerusalem, Beijing, and Athens. Its ruling deity, the Lord Shiva, protects the city.
Known as Kashi (City of Light), Varanasi had a long tradition of spiritual education. In its ashrams, students gathered to study the Vedas, the earliest sacred literature of India. The city attracted the great seekers of wisdom — among them Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha, the philosopher Shankara, and the theologian Ramanuja.
I had seen Varanasi in photographs and in documentaries — the long flights of steps that led down to the holy Ganges; the pavilions, homes, and temples that rose above those steps; the pilgrims who stood waist-deep in the waters offering prayers; those who bathed by the riverside; those who came to the river to wash their clothes; and the smoke that billowed from the cremation pyres. It was a compelling portrait of a city that embraced life and death.
To sense the spiritual fervor of Varanasi, one has to visit the riverbanks along the Ganges.
I came to Varanasi to see the spiritual heart of India. During my visit, Shantum Seth, an eminent teacher of the Zen tradition who has led spiritual journeys around India and South Asia for over 25 years, accompanied me. From the city of Delhi, we took a flight to Varanasi heading north to the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Around the city, I encountered streets choked with pedestrians and vehicles, buildings and structures that stood in disrepair, merchants and vendors who plied a dizzying array of goods, from arts and crafts to everyday provisions.
To sense the spiritual fervor of Varanasi, one has to visit the riverbanks along the Ganges. The Ganges was believed to have descended from heaven to earth. Hindus referred to sacred places to which they journeyed as tirthas (gateways) between heaven and earth. Varanasi and the Ganges have long been regarded as tirthas. Hindus believe that in such places their prayers are easily heard, their petitions are granted, and their rituals will bring abundant blessings.
Although most people live in abject poverty, there are those who seem to face life stoically, and others hold themselves with grace and dignity. I asked Shantum Seth to explain the seeming contradiction. “Poverty does not degrade you. There is a strong sense of belonging and connection to family, the community, and one’s cultural traditions,” he said.
Shantum Seth and I set out for the riverbanks before daybreak to catch a motorboat that would take us through the Ganges. The sun came up slowly from across the opposite side of the riverbanks, illuminating the iconic images of Varanasi — the boats, the pilgrims, structures huddled close together, and the long flight of steps that led down to the river. There are said to be over 70 ghats (riverfront steps) where the rituals of daily life are carried out.
Walking toward the southern part of the river, we found a row of guesthouses, vendors selling souvenirs and religious items, and a shrine set below a tree trunk with the images of deities and offerings of flowers and oil-wick lamps. Along Varanasi’s narrow alleys where family life and commerce mingle, small shrines are tucked into the niches of the city’s walls. People bring their daily offerings to these sacred spaces.
Indra Mohan, a teacher of classical Yoga philosophy, told me that children were taught to make offerings of incense, fruit, and oil lamps to the deities. Children learned to offer whatever gifts they received to the Divine, and in turn took these gifts as a form of blessing. Every village had a deity, and people who struggled to keep the family together were sustained by their faith. “The strength of India lies in its spiritual practices,” Mrs. Mohan explained.
On the Ganges, we saw bathers, men washing their clothes, and women making floral offerings that they would set afloat on the river. We saw those practicing meditation, those doing their morning exercises, pilgrims and devotees praying before a shrine, and pundits who carried out Hindu rituals under large umbrellas poised along the steps.
At Manikarnika Ghat, we came to the great cremation ground. It is believed that those who died in Varanasi and are brought to this sacred ground will be liberated from the cycle of death and rebirth known as samsara. Moksha, or the liberation from samsara, is the goal of Hindu religious beliefs and practices. When one attains moksha, one’s soul will be freed from the karmic suffering caused by the cycle of samsara.
At a distance, black smoke billowed from the cremation pyres of Manikarnika Ghat. Wooden logs were piled high on boats, and families attended the last rites for their loved ones before their ashes were emptied out into the Ganges.
The next day, I visited Banares Hindu University, one of the largest universities in Asia. Founded in 1916 by Madan Mohan Malaviya, the university seeks to preserve Varanasi’s long tradition of Sanskrit scholarship and to offer a strong curriculum in the sciences.
The New Vishwanath Temple stood on the sprawling campus grounds. In its interior, the full text of the Bhagavad Gita and verses from sacred Hindu scriptures were inscribed on the marble walls.
My next stop was the Durga Kund temple. The temple’s façade was stained red with ocher representing the color of the Goddess Durga and was decked with multi-tiered spires. Durga once slew the demon Durgasur and thus restored peace and happiness to the world. The temple was built in the 18th century in the Nagara style of temple architecture.
During the festival of Navratri, devotees bathe in the temple’s pond, believing that they will be cleansed of all their sins.
In the evening, I headed to Vishwanath Gali, one of Varanasi’s oldest and busiest lanes. There, I found teashops, herbal remedies and aromatic oils, silver necklaces, religious items, ritual objects, T-shirts and memorabilia. Food vendors sold local snacks and sweets. Even in this hub of commerce, I saw bright-colored murals of gods and goddesses, and shrines where deities were bedecked with garlands of flowers.
At the end of the lane, I came to a road leading to Dashashwamedh Ghat where the evening aarti, a Hindu ritual of worship, would be held by the banks of the Ganges. Pilgrims, visitors, and ash-smeared sadhus (ascetics) were making their way to the long flight of steps, and elderly beggars sat cross-legged along the path.
Across the road, stores with a staggering array of goods were brightly lit. Each stop along the city felt like sensory overload. There was much to take in — the cultural and spiritual aspects of life, what these meant to the locals, and to the pilgrims who came from all over India.
The next day, I met Ajay Pandey, who leads heritage walks around Varanasi in association with the Kriti Gallery. Ajay took me to some of the city’s healing and spiritual centers. At Pishach Mochan Kund, Hindu priests and devotees gathered inside the temple for the traditional ritual known as Tripindi Sraddha. Hindus participated in this ritual before the death rites in the city of Gaya. This temple was meant for those who had met an untimely or tragic death. Through these rites, the troubled spirits were liberated. An alcove was dedicated to the deities — among them were Hanuman, who is known as a remover of obstacles, and Pishachamochana, who is believed to liberate wandering spirits from their restless state.
At Kapildhara Road on the outskirts of the city, we met the faith healer Ram Charan Baba. The Baba was endowed with the powers of the Goddess Durga every Tuesday, and healing powers obtained from a Muslim shrine near Lucknow every Thursday. Revered as the Mother Goddess, Durga could bestow her powers on male and female believers alike. Ajay told me that the Baba could figure out people’s problems. He could look into a person’s soul and could tell if evil spirits inhabited one’s being.
At Ram Baba’s house, the images of deities were housed in small niches in the courtyard. The Baba sat on the floor of a small chamber that was dedicated to a pair of goddesses draped in embellished garments. He prayed over us to see if we were well with the gods and the spirits, and later told us that the gods we prayed to were protecting us.
Our last stop was the Sufi shrine in Varuna Sangam at the northern end of the city. At the mausoleum of Chandan Shahid, Hindus and Muslims came to bring their cares, concerns, and wishes before the tomb of this Sufi saint. Every Thursday, people of both faiths came together, writing their petitions, leaving them in the mausoleum, and removing them when their wishes were granted.
Sufism emerged as a mystical movement within Islam and was later influenced by the Bhakti movement. Both movements held true that devotion to God was the way to unite oneself with the divine.
In Varanasi, the sacred and the ordinary are inextricably linked. This city of hope and faith inspired me to find further strength in my own faith, and ultimately in myself.
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Adapted from the author’s book The Sacred and the Ordinary: Journeys Around Asia available on Amazon.com