It’s been 20 years or more since we’ve visited Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges, called Benares by the British during the Raj.....and it’s grown many fold, as the pollution seen from the air as we land attests. So has the traffic—congestion and absolute chaos of cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, cows, goats and people on the road — which means the transfer takes an hour weaving through this chaotic mass of traffic for the 20 km from the airport to the river’s edge at the north end of the city. Leaving the car, we wend through the colorful madness of pedestrians, street hawkers, pigs, goats and mendicants to the stone steps, called gahts locally, down to the Ganges, where a boat from hotel Brijrama Palace picks us up for 20 minute cruise to the Dharbanga ghat over which the palace looms.....

An imposing edifice presiding over the river, the fully renovated palace was originally commissioned in 1812 by Shridhara Narayana Munshi, the minister for the state of Nagpur.  In 1915, the Brahmin King of Darbhanga—Rameshwar Singh Bahadur—acquired the palace, and the ghat also came to be known as Darbhanga Ghat.The first sight of the hotel is its historical elevator, installed in 1918, and said to be one of the oldest in India, built to help the Darbanga king ascend the three levels to the second floor of the palace. The architecture and the design of the palace are directly influenced by the ruling dynasty of the Marathas, which include the carved pillars, semicircular bastions and painted floral motifs. Marble inlaid floors, carved stone balustrades, sandstone walls and pillars graced with Maratha art and the Thikri glass inlay in plaster, which dates back to the Sheesh Mahal of Shah Jahan, all contribute to the feeling of living in an elegant palace from the past. The lobby is gorgeous, as are all the public rooms, and a central open courtyard soaring four floors up to a skylight above.

The current owners spent 18 years restoring the property. Photographs in the salon show a completely dilapidated and falling apart structure when renovation began. All materials had to be carried in through the narrow streets of Varanasi, and an enormous amount of hand work resulted in the very long renovation period.

We check into our room, called Dhanurdhara, which is very nice, but contrary to our expectations does not have a river view—miscommunication from Greaves Tours, the ground operator. Apparently only the four Maharaja Suites are located on the river side. Note to travelers—if you’re going to Varanasi, and going to stay at its top hotel, spend up and book a suite. At 3 we meet our guide Ajay, pronounced (ah-jai’ rather than AJ as I had always thought) and he takes us to meet Professor Rama from Benares university who leads us on a cultural historical walking tour through the oldest narrowest lanes of Varanasi, visiting several temples, and soaking up some basic Hindu philosophy and the structure of its pantheon of gods and goddesses. We start at a small Vishnu temple deep in the back lanes, where the triple icon is vaguely blackface in appearance. The temple is enclosed by simple quarters where the extended family that tends the temple lives. Dr. Rama says that it used to be full of monkeys, and known as the monkey temple, but the temple tenders solved the problem by bringing in some apes.  

We wander the back alleys of Varanasi, with motor bikes buzzing and honking by, dogs sleeping in doorways, goats scampering and cows ambling along placidly. There will be an open-air barber, next to a small vegetable stand, aside a bike repair joint, followed by a couple of vegetable carts, then a shop with bubbling cauldron of oil which various sweet treats are dipped quickly into. The air smells of smoke, of dust, of incense, of gently rotting fruit and animals.

The last stop, Lolark Kund, is a deep sacred step well believed to convey fertility. At the Lolark Shasthi festival, couples with difficulty conceiving descends the steep steps to the pool at the bottom, bathe, and along with a fruit, leave their clothes as an offering, (they bring something to avoid leaving naked). They depart with the hope or belief that they will have a child in the near future. Dr. Rama states that this year between 200-300,000 pilgrims showed up from all over India, and the lines, controlled by extra police and army, stretched for miles out of the city, snaking in slowly to take the cure. He says that quite a bazaar or street fair develops, as families set up camp fires all through the lanes. Near the well is the small Maa Mahisasur Mardini temple and a covered verandah in crimson red, over the top of which families of monkeys scamper.

After a Benarsi samosa chaat snack and a ginger/lime soda in the Kamalya Café which wraps around the upper courtyard of the hotel, and a short rest, we board the hotel launch around six pm and motor to the Dashashwamed Ghat for the daily evening Ganga Aatri, a puja or blessing ceremony overseen by a dozen saffron-clad priests who chant and swing and circle deepam brass containers serially presenting the five Hindu elements of air, sky, water, earth and fire, while bells toll and tabla drums sound their sonorous musical rhythms. The fascinating ceremony is elaborate, choreographed and lasts around three-quarters of an hour. There are thousands of people sitting on the steps running up from the ceremonial platform, and hundreds of watercraft of all shapes and sizes containing more thousands of people facing the ghat from the Ganges. Ajay says that while there are certainly plenty of tourists (many multiples the number when we were here years ago) the crowds are mostly pilgrims, since Benares is to Hindus as Mecca is to Muslims....a once in a lifetime required pilgrimage.

We’re told that the creators of the Brijrama Palace are a wealthy business couple whose religious devotion has led them to insist that the hotel is strictly vegetarian, and no alcohol be served. That means pre-dinner cocktails in our room are not the option we normally have but prescribed. The hotel’s Dharbanga restaurant feature Indian as well as Italian and Asian cuisine, and we opt to stay local and to start order aloo chaat, a local potato street food (chaat basically means snacks or street food). This cold dish combines potatoes, onions, yoghurt, spices, fresh cilantro and pomegranate seeds into a sort of potato salad. Wine not being an option, we elect the punchy housemade ginger ale to drink. Indian breads in their multiple forms are one of our favorite things, and we order onion kulcha and butter naan, with a dish of dal makhani—black lentils simmered with spices, butter and cream accompanied by grated coconut, mint chutney and spicy/salty pickle to add contrast.....it’s a carb-heavy but delicious meal.

The following morning, we set out in pre-dawn darkness, descend the creaky birdcage elevator, then climb down three dozen very steep steps to the river bank to board a rustic rowboat and proceed down river to experience sunrise over the Ganges. As dawn brightens, we set two small paper boats filled with marigold blossoms and a candle, as a wish, an offering for someone’s good fortune. Our first trip here many years ago we wished ease for Troy’s father and my mother......This trip we wish health and fortune for a couple of friends who need it….

The sun shows a dull amber in the haze across the river and the long sandbanks that appear this low water time of year. In the low early light people, pilgrims, camps, tents and a few camels are silhouetted against the rising sun. In the foreground, on the river, shapes of low black boats carry fishermen tossing out nets, river birds wheeling around them, sunlight a jagged beaten copper streak across the water under their bows.

There are 88 named ghats, mostly ceremonial and bathing, along the sweep of the mother Ganga at Varanasi. There are two specific cremation ghats, and the larger of the two, Manikarnika ghat is located toward the north end. Hindus believe that cremation at the Ganges, preceded by a cleansing plunge of the body into the river, and with the ashes subsequently distributed into the river, leads the soul directly to heaven, bypassing all reincarnation and escaping the cycle of rebirth. It is therefore highly desired to be taken to the holy city for this ritual. Cars can be seen in the surroundings coming from all points of the compass with gold or saffron cloth wrapped bodies strapped on top.

There are several cremation platforms along the ghat, below the Baba Mashan Nath temple, and tucked everywhere are enormous—really gigantic—piles of logs. It takes around 800-1,000 pounds of wood to completely cremate one human. The family purchases the logs, and contracts with the Dom—the clan of untouchables who have the exclusive job of tending the sacred fire—which the Dom claim has been alight for centuries, and carrying out cremations to lay the pyre, set it alight with a sacred coal, and tend to it for the three hours or so it will take to reduce to ash. The importance of cremation at Varanasi all over India insures that the pyres are lit 24/7 365 days a year. An average of 100 bodies per day are cremated at Manikarnika. The Dom, these lowest caste of all Indians in Varanasi are quite wealthy. Ajay says that all found—sacred flame, wood, ghee, incense, sandalwood, flowers—it runs 10-15,000 rupees for cremation in Varanasi. By way of collateral damage, it’s estimated that 50 million or more trees annually are consumed in India for the purpose.

As we slowly drift past, we can see a saffron-robed body being dragged down the stone ramp to the river for its purification, several underway pyres burning brightly in the low morning light, plumes of grey/brown smoke swirling up into the lightening sky, hundreds of colorfully-clad mourners/celebrants gathered round, one of the Dom adjusting a corpse like logs in a fire, and off to the side, men sifting through a large pile of ash to recover any gold or valuables—the clink of brittle bone fragments audible in the air. It is to our western aesthetic both ghoolish and incredibly fascinating.

As we make our slow way back to Dharbanga with the sun beginning to light the ghats, we watch a cross section of pilgrims make their way down to and into the river for purifying dips. Fully clothed chaste women, mostly nude nut-brown, skinny or pot-belied men, and wiry children ease into the water, lift handfuls repeatedly to their faces and heads, and let the Ganges flow off of them, carrying away, they believe, their sins—their faces mostly smiling and beatific. Despite the evident pollution of the water (floating garbage—much extra from the recent Divali celebration, human remains) Ajay says that very few pilgrims who bathe in the Ganges encounter any sort of problems.

In the afternoon Ajay leads us on a city tour, starting with a drive round the 1300-acre Benares Hindustan University, today a major center of learning where over 30,000 students study. This institution was started by an activist, Madan Mohan Malviya, who wished in 1905 to establish a university. He asked the hereditary ruler of Benares—Kashi Naresh—for land to start an institution to teach Hinduism. Naresh told him he could have as much land as he could cover in one day’s march, which turned out to be a semi-circle, with flat side completed, and that enclosed 1300 acres of land. Accordingly, the campus is laid out in concentric semi-circles of schools of learning.

Meandering through streets lined with a variety of chaat vendors—bowls of fresh yoghurt; golgappas—small round pillows of crisp dough filled with spicy chickpeas and sweet chutney; pakora—deep fried vegetable fritters; coal-fired griddles sizzling with aloo tikka. We stop at Bharat Mata Temple, doff shoes, and enter to view an amazing great carved marble relief map of undivided India, created by between 1918 and 1924 by two dozen stone masons, and inducted by Gandhi in 1936. Incredibly detailed, it shows all the rivers and waterways, offshore islands, vast plains and plateaus of the country, and the veritable wall of the Himalayas and associated countries of Nepal, Bhutan, and parts of China to the north. Ajay uses a green laser pointer to pick out the highest peaks of Everest and K-2, the Great Wall of China, the Pakistan border, and Sri Lanka at the bottom. The temple is in need of some maintenance, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit the next day and has apparently promised some millions of rupees for refurbishment. We’ve found through discussions with our various guides that there are distinctive and robust camps of pro and anti Modi folks.

Near sunset, we descend to the ghat level and meander through the teeming throngs back to Dashashwamedh Ghat and the aarti ceremonial area, and witness the ritual again from the shore side, seeing the priests from behind, and looking out at the assembled flotilla of worshippers. The deep trumpet of the conch shell, the gongs, drums, chanting, clapping.... the smoke, ceremonial flames and incense smells all combine into an almost trancelike experience. For all the dung, ordure, seething poverty and otherworldly sights the traveler is submitted to visiting the holy Hindu city, there is magic and wonder to overcome them.