Visiting Varanasi takes the traveler to the spiritual heart of India. This city along the Ganges is considered the country’s holiest spot for both Hindus and Buddhists. We landed there on December 24 in the midst of a three-day church festival for Christmas. As if that wasn’t enough, we ate our festive hotel dinner that night (Indian menu, Christmas décor and Santa Claus hats for the men) to the accompaniment of youthful carolers. When they took a break, rousing renditions of “To Life, To Life, l’Chaim,” (from “Fiddler on the Roof”) and then “Have Negilah” rang out from three large tables of Israeli travelers. No horah dancing, but a lively and ironic interlude. “Of all the gin joints,” who would have expected this crowd?

This was close to the end of the official tour part of our trip through Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), which led us through Bhutan and northern India. We were a group of seven in Bhutan and ten in India, a very manageable size. Our veteran group leader, Krish, keeps a selection of silk saris in OAT’s customary Varanasi hotel, and a woman who works there came in to drape the four women in the group for Christmas Eve dinner. The Israelis were amused. My weekly Hebrew conversation class at home enabled me to talk to them almost as well as most spoke English (including a few raised in the United States). They were intrigued that we were going to Israel after India.


One goes is to witness the scenes along the Ganges that demonstrate the spiritual devotion of Hindus who worship its power to cleanse, purify and anoint them. Going to the river both at dawn and dusk provided a snapshot of a Day in the Life at Varanasi.

Walking through Varanasi after morning trip to Ganges. I’m in puffy beige jacket with coral fleece hat. No outdoor swim for me that day!

In the morning the devoted perform their ablutions, washing in the river no matter the time of year, weather or water temperature. We left the hotel well before sunrise and walked the awakening streets of the city to reach the riverbank, where we boarded a large open boat. The morning was cold, dark and chilly—you can see how bundled up we were. I wouldn’t say there was a crowd of bathers that morning, but the few believers immersed in the cold (and filthy) water were a hearty lot. Following local custom, to commemorate deceased relatives, we floated candles surrounded by marigold flowers off the side of the boat.    

Our cruise included a few cremation sightings on shore. The riverfront at Varanasi is the scene of about 300 cremations throughout the day, both locals and pilgrims from other cities. The dead arrive wrapped in orange silk (we saw several processions with such apparitions on car roofs en route to the river) but are burned in one less elaborate layer of shroud. It’s inappropriate to directly aim a camera toward a cremation scene at close range, but longer views, especially those at night, are okay.

During the day we visited a Hindu temple and Buddha Park, about a block apart. And, in a completely different vein, we saw the Mother India temple, established by Mahatma Gandhi in an effort to sway Indians away from narrow religious piety toward reverence for the newly independent nation of India. But the giant map of India along the floor of this temple has hardly replaced the larger-than-life statues of Shiva and his Hindu god colleagues and Buddha we’ve seen in Varanasi and throughout the trip.

Our sunset cruise in Varanasi was capped by the nightly “Thanksgiving to the Ganges” ceremony led by several monks. It begins with a shofar-like musical call. Various manifestations of candlelight, as well as festive holiday lights strung along the riverfront, made this a colorful sight, too.

One can’t help but be moved by the rituals of Varanasi and the spiritual significant they evoke. I confess to feeling very emotionally moved by holding my candle and placing it into the river in the morning. My mother, whose yahrzeit (anniversary of her death in 2008) had occurred the past week was somehow there, because she HAD BEEN there, in India, herself. I was able to finally let loose with some tears for my friend, Alicia Urban, an intrepid traveler for whom I continue to grieve.

But the mood was broken by the approach and pestering of a boatman selling garden-variety Indian schtotchkes, audio tapes and music DVD’s, one of which was showing on a TV screen in the boat. Such commercialization of a sacred place shouldn’t have shocked, but it did. A spoiler moment. 

And an irony less pleasant than “Have Negilah” on Christmas Eve in Varanasi!



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