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Varanasi pilgrimage tour

Varanasi-The City of Lights

Uttar Pradesh is home to many holy pilgrimage sites that dot this large State-situated in the inaccessible, lofty mountains to blistering hot plains and along cool rivers.

On a winter morning as the cool wind blew gently, I rode on a rickshaw speeding along the narrow roads of one of the oldest cities of the world. Varanasi, also known as Kashi, meaning ‘City of Light’, was coming to life. In fact, the eternal city of Varanasi never sleeps. It was only six in the morning and the streets were full of people rushing to take a pre-dawn dip in the holy Ganges.

Kashi is as old as Jerusalem or Athens and like a true Indian city, it is one of contrasts. Its antiquity is preserved along with currents of modernity in an unbroken chain of Hindu tradition and culture.

Yet, this over-populated city is, on the surface, overwhelmingly bewildering and extremely challenging to the Western visitor, who may find himself suddenly lingering in an altogether different era: in the midst of all the chaos, an orderly world fashioned in divine order is distinctly visible.

At dawn, I left my rickshaw and started to walk towards Dashashwamedh Ghat, the most famous ghat in Varanasi. Dashashwamedh is the second the five tirthas on the holy river, the first being Asi. It is said that Lord Brahma performed the ‘ten horses’ sacrifice here. The narrow road connecting it with the heart of the city, Godaulia, was a little stream hundreds of years ago and was named Godavari after the sacred river of Central India. Thus Dashashwamedha was at the confluence of the Ganga and the Godavari rivers!

In the early hours of the morning, it appeared as though the ghats had become an extension of people’s homes as the entire city appeared to be present there.

The cool wind had turned chilly but bathers were not discouraged and boatmen kept persuading Indians and foreigners alike to come for a ride. I sat bemused on the ghats watching a panda (priest) trying to persuade a Westerner to undergo a holy ritual. Nearby another foreigner, dressed in kurta-pyjama was reading a local Hindi daily! A barber, sitting on a brick was busy shaving a customer who too was sitting on a stone. Pandas sitting under wooden umbrellas continued performing rituals in return for a small fee. It was indeed business hours for many!

Soon the sky began to turn blood red and like a ball of fire, the sun rose into the firmament. Pilgrims rushed to the water so that they could offer it to the Sun God. I decided to take a walk along the ghats and witnessed some people meditating or doing aerobics while others sipped cups of tea.

Next to Dashashwamedha Ghat is Man Mandir Ghat, famous for its towering fortress with exquisite, ornately carved windows and the 18th century observatory built by Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur. Then comes Mir Ghat where the temple of Vishalakshi is located. Along side is the Shiva temple of Dharmesha where the Lord of Death, Yamaraja received his jurisdiction over the fate of the dead (but he is deprived of this power in Varanasi!) Then there is the Lalita Ghat, where one comes across the Nepali Temple enshrining the image of Pashupatinath, Nepal’s most famous manifestation of Lord Shiva.

I had by this time reached Manikarnika Ghat, described by the tourist guides as the ‘big burning ghat’ where the fire on the funeral pyres never dies out. But this ghat is more than just a mere burning ghat. Manikarnika is said to be the place where the earth was created as well as the place where the earth will be destroyed. Containing both the sacred well, dug out by Vishnu at the beginning of time and the cremation ground where creation itself burns out at the end of time, it is here that life meets death.

Death, unlike anywhere else, is not feared in Varanasi but is welcomed like a long awaited guest and in Manikarnika the dead attain moksha or liberation. This influence extends itself all over Varanasi.

Varanasi is a city of narrow and even more narrow lanes and by-lanes where even the sun does not easily penetrate. It is very difficult to keep track of the complicated network of lanes which no map seems to plot accurately. And it is in these lanes that the city lives and thrives. There are lofty houses made of red sandstone and dazzling shops selling the famous Banarasi silk, brocade, handicrafts and brasswork. The winding maze of long lanes finally leads to the famous Vishwanath Temple, the abode of Lord Shiva.

Varanasi is the city of Shiva who is considered the Lord of Varanasi. It is said that when he married Parvati, the beautiful daughter of the Himalayas, he scanned the entire earth and choosing Varanasi decided to settle there. Today there are thousands of Shiva temples the most famous of them being the Kashi Vishwanath Temple situated in the extremely narrow and busy Vishwanath Lane. Here the Shiva linga is the jyotirlinga or ‘Linga of Light’ and is installed in the seat of divine energy or shakti personified as Shiva’s female half.

Countless pilgrims perform puja here every day after taking a bath in the Ganges. The present temple was built in the late 18th century by Queen Ahalyabai Holker of Indore, and in 1839, Ranjit Singh got the spires over the temple plated with gold.

Paying no head to the calls of shopkeepers, I emerged from Vishvanath Lane where dozens of shops selling all kinds of religious paraphernalia nestled cheek-by-jowl.

But everything in Varanasi is not religion and even though it has no instant ‘gimmicks’ to offer the first-time visitor, it is a city that has sheltered innumerable poets, scholars, musicians and artisans making it a rich repository of India’s cultural traditions. And even today as you wend your way through streets, flanked by flower sellers and halwais, you will chance upon the residence of the shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan.

Wander further a field to Mandanpura or Alaipura or indeed any suburban locality and you will discover the magic of the Benaras brocade.

This then is Varanasi—bewildering, breathtaking and an utter contradiction.


Raas is the essence of all the rasas (emotions) and leela is the depiction of episodes from the life of the Lord.

The story goes that raas was performed some 5,000 years ago by Lord Krishna and his brother Balaram with Radha being Krishna’s main partner. One day, however, Krishna deserted Radha and the weeping maiden with her friends enacted episodes from Krishna’s life in order to keep his memory alive. And so, as legend has it; the first raas leela was performed.

In the Shrimad Bhagawat Gita there is a description of a maharaas in which over 1,600 gopis (milk maids) are said to have participated, along with Krishna, on the banks of the river Yamuna on full moon night. Lord Shiva dressed up as a gopi just to take part in the event and a number of gods and goddesses are said to have descended from heaven to witness this unique moment.

“Raas leela was really a figment of the imagination of the great saints and scholars who wrote our ancient texts,” contends Mr. Jiwan Pai, Director of the Kathak Kendra, New Delhi. “It symbolized the achievement of divine sublimation through graceful rhythmic movements… Tangible enactment of raas leela first came about only in the 16th century during the Bhakti renaissance.”

The Bhakti renaissance as we know involved figures like Chaitanya Mahaprabhu from Bengal, Guru Vallabhacharya, the great saint-musician from the south, Swami Haridas, the guru of Tansen etc. These leaders toured the plains of north India to identify the holy land of Braj and places where Krishna performed the raas.

The first raas leela, that we that we know of, based on episodes from the Shrimad Bhagawat Purana, was performed under the auspices of Guru Vallabhacharya and his poets including the famous Surdas, at the Vishram Ghat in Mathura. This sowed the seeds of the raas leela tradition.

Today, there are over 100 raas mandalis touring India and abroad. They converge on the sacred Braj-bhoomi during the auspicious months of August and September to relive the time when Radha and Krishna reveled in their romance. For 45 days and nights a different episode in the lives of these great lovers is enacted by each mandali in a huge pandal. Entrance is free and all the artists are male in keeping with the tradition of the first raas at Vishram Ghat 500 years ago.


References to Hardwar are extremely scanty, in spite of the existence of many ancient sites in the region. Mayapur, Gangdwara, Kapila and in earlier travelogues even Mo-yu-lo were all names given to Hardwar. The town’s special position as the principal gateway to the Himalayas made it of strategic importance and its antiquity is proved by its close association with early Hindu mythology.

Abul Fazl, during Akbar’s reign, refers to Maya or Haridwar, and Tom Coryat, who visited the place in the days of Jehangir speaks of “Haridwara, the capital of Shiva.” It is said that there was a mint for copper coins here.

The first of the sacred sites is the Bhimgoda tank on the north side of the pass. The next is in the town itself and consists of a well within a small temple called Brahmakund, which possibly marks the site of the great temple mentioned by the Chinese traveller, Hsuan Tsieng.

Towards the south is the Har-ki-pauri or bathing ghat, so called from the imprint of Vishnu’s feet shown on a stone built into the wall. This ghat, the most sacred of all the holy places at Hardwar, was originally very small, and had a width of only 34 feet at the top with 39 steps. This resulted in a mad scramble as the object of the pilgrims was to reach the sacred pool as soon as possible. The end result was, more often than not, disaster. In 1820, a desperate surge killed over 400 people. Consequently, in order to prevent such disasters, the present ghat was constructed with a width of several hundred metres.

Close at hand is the Gangadwara temple, the largest and the most important of all shrines here. To the south are a succession of temples and monasteries ending with the shrine of Sarvanath, which is at the junction of Lalta Rau and the Ganga. At Mayapur too, just below Gangesh ghat are the headworks of the Ganges canal.


Among the snows of Garhwal nestle Badrinath and Kedarnath—two of the most sacred Hindu shrines devoted to Vishnu and Shiva. At the foothills of Garhwal stands Rishikesh. It is here that the Ganga changes character from a fierce mountain stream to a placid river, meandering through the vast plains.

Further downstream is Allahabad. Prayag, as it is normally called, marks the sangam (confluence) of the life givers Ganga and Yamuna with the mythical, underground river Saraswati. A bath at the confluence offers complete absolution from a lifetime of sin.

Ayodhya is inevitably linked with Shri Rama, just as Mathura and Vrindavan are linked with Shri Krishna. Besides these major places of pilgrimage in the State, there are numerous other smaller, localized centres, albeit outside the scope of individual detailing.


To see a river for the first time as its confluence with another great river is, for me, a special moment in time. And so it was with the Mandakini at Rudraprayag, where its waters were joined with the waters of the Alaknanda, one having come from the glacial snows above Kedarnath, the other from the Himalayan heights beyond Badrinath. Both sacred rivers, both destined to become the holy Ganga further downstream.

While the Alaknanda valley, especially in its higher reaches, is a deep and narrow gorge where precipitous outcrops of rock hang threateningly over the traveller, the –Mandakini valley is broader, gentler, the terraced fields wider, the banks of the river a green sward in many places. Somehow, one does not feel that one is at the mercy of the Mandakini whereas one is always at the mercy of the Alaknanda with its sudden landslips and floods.

Rudraprayag is hot. It is probably a pleasant spot in winter, but at the end of June it is decidedly hot. But as one travels up the river, making a gradual ascent of the Mandakini valley, there is a cool breeze coming down from, the snows, and the smell of rain is in the air.

The thriving little township of Agastmuni spreads itself along the wide river banks and further upstream, near a little place called Chandrapuri, we cannot resist breaking our journey to sprawl on t he tender green grass that slopes gently down to the swift flowing river. A small rest house is in the making. Around it, banana fronds sway and poplar leaves dance in the breeze.

The road climb gradually, still keeping to the river. Just outside Guptakashi my attention is drawn to a clump of huge trees sheltering a small but ancient temple dedicated to Shiva and in the courtyard are several river-rounded stone lingams on which leaves and blossoms have fallen. No one seems to come here, which is strange, since it is on the pilgrim route. The trees seem to be magnolias. But I have never seen magnolia trees grow to such huge proportions.

Guptakashi in the evening is all a bustle. A coachload of pilgrims headed for Kedarnath has just arrived and the tea shops near the bus stand are doing brisk business. Since there is no cinema or public place of entertainment at Guptakashi, the town goes to sleep early. And wakes early.

At six, the hillside, green from recent rain, sparkles in the morning sunshine. Snowcapped Chaukhamba (7140 metres) is dazzling. The air is clear; no smoke or dust up here. The climate, I am told is mild all the year round judging by the scent and shape of the flowers, and the boys call them Champa.

Guptakashi has old double-storeyed houses which are built of stone, with grey slate roofs. The blend well with the hillside and cobbled paths meander through the old bazaar. One of these takes you up to the famed Guptakashi temple tucked away above the old part of the town. Here, Shiva is worshipped as Vishwanath and two underground streams representing the sacred Jamuna and Bhagirathi rivers feed the pool sacred to the God. The temple gives the town its name—Guptakashi or “Invisible Benares”.

From Guptakashi pilgrims proceed north to Kedarnath, the last stage of their journey, about a day’s march, which must be covered on foot or horseback. The temple of Kedarnath, situated at a height of 11,753 feet is encircled by snow-capped peaks. The temple is dedicated to Sadashiva, the subterranean form of God who fleeing from the Pandavas took refuge here. Finding himself hard pressed, he dived into the ground, leaving the hinder parts on the surface which continue to be the subject to adoration.

The other portions of the God are worshipped as follows: the arms at Tungnath, at a height of 13,000 feet; the face at Rudranath; the belly at Madmaheshwar, 18 miles north east of Guptakashi; and the hair and head at Kalpeshwar near Joshimath. These five sacred shrines form the Panch Kedars.

¤ Ajmer Sharif ¤ Amarkantak ¤ Amritsar
¤ Bodhgaya ¤ Chidambaram ¤ Chitrakoot
¤ Dargahkaliyarsharif ¤ Dharamsala ¤ Dilwaratemples
¤ Dwarka ¤ Gangasagarmela ¤ Garhwal
¤ Goa ¤ Guruvayur ¤ Hardwar
¤ Jageshwar ¤ Jambukeswaram ¤ Jambukeswaram
¤ Kailashmansarovar ¤ Kamakhya ¤ Maheshwaromkareshwar
¤ Mathura ¤ Parashuramkund ¤ Pilgrimagecenters
¤ Pilgrimagesofsikhs ¤ Rameshwaram ¤ Rishikesh
¤ Sabarimala ¤ Shatrunjayahill ¤ Shivapur
¤ Tawangmonastery ¤ Thirukalikundrum ¤ Tirupati
¤ Travelofgods ¤ Trichur ¤ Tripureshwari
¤ Tungnath ¤ Vaishnodevi ¤ Varanasi
¤ Vrindavan ¤ Yamnotri