VARANASI, INDIA — To a Hindu, Varanasi is the equivalent of Mecca to a Muslim or Jerusalem to a Jew or Christian.
Varanasi is located in the southeast part of Uttar Pradesh in India, the most populous state in India. I was ecstatic when my line of work finally allowed me the opportunity to parade around Varanasi like a barefoot pilgrim for three days.
Before my visit, a few of my friends told me that Varanasi was one of the filthiest and most dangerous places to visit. Thank Buddha, both statements turned out to be completely false, and it actually happened to one of the most magical cities I’ve ever visited in my life.
Varanasi is a city that has thrived for thousands of years on the beautiful foundations of religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism and has opened its doors for the rest of the world to indulge in its mystery and charming chaos.
While the city is home to hundreds of temples, the Golden Temple, or Kashi Vishwanath, is one of the most prominent places of worship for a Hindu. Located within the alleys next to the banks of the holy river Ganges, the Kashi Vishwanath temple is considered one of the main temples in India dedicated to the worship of Lord Shiva in India. Upon entering, you will immediately take notice of the solid gold spire and dome that glistens in the sun, the bright white marble, and at least a few dozen monkeys hopping around freely. Although the main temple deity, or the Shiv Ling, is surprisingly tiny, you will still feel a sense of accomplishment after maneuvering your way through the crowd of hundreds of devotees to reach it.
What they don’t tell you about the Golden Temple, however, is that during certain festivals, they do not allow foreign nationals to enter. Before visiting, ensure that your preferred date doesn’t coincide with a major religious ceremony. If visiting, also remember to give your tithe to the temple office rather than the priest that asks you for 2,000 rupees in return for blessings that will yield you a husband, a nice car, and lots of children. (Just in case you were wondering, none of this has yet come to fruition, at least for me.)
In the evening, the most popular activity in Varanasi is to take the wooden speedboat ride in the Ganges along the hundreds of ghats, or steps, and witness the nightly arti, or prayer ceremony. The ceremony begins at 6:00 p.m. sharp, so make sure that you leave at least an hour and a half beforehand to ride along the Ganges slowly to witness the cremation ceremonies, the yogis meditating on the steps, and devotees bathing in what are said to be enlightening waters.
I would not recommend bathing in the Ganges yourself, unless you want to contract a disease that you can’t pronounce, but it does make for excellent people-watching. The ceremony itself lasts around 30 to 45 minutes and requires the guide to tie his boat to the many others awaiting the start of this bright ceremony.
Whether it is a religious pilgrimage or tourism that takes you to Varanasi, you will be amazed by the amount of devotion that constantly surrounds you during your time here.
The city is perfectly complex and has nothing to offer but love. No matter who you are, you will instantly feel as though you are part of the rhythm of the city life. For this reason alone, no matter what race, age, gender, or religion you are, Varanasi is bound to be one of the most peaceful and truly enlightening places you have ever visited.
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