by Martin Noval

In India, rivers are arteries of transport and communication, and spiritual highways too, channels through which spirit releases its creative power. And if you know how, you can reverse the process of creation; then the rivers become flowing stairways to “heaven,” to transcendence, to self-realization and ultimately to self-extinction. The Ganges is the paradigmatic sacred river and the ancient city of Varanasi, located on a bend in the river’s course, where it reverses direction and flows back towards its source, is perhaps the world’s ultimate power place, a tirtha so powerful that all of India’s other innumerable power places, (which are fords from the mundane world to the world of spirit) locate themselves in Varanasi in microcosm. It is said that even being touched by a breeze that contains but a drop of vapor from the Ganges at Varanasi releases one from countless lifetimes of suffering.

The city of Varanasi lies along the top of a steep ridge that is the west bank of the Ganges. Here the river forms a huge sweeping crescent about 3 miles long. Wide, steep flights of steps, called ghats, descend the ridge from city to river. The height of these steps varies greatly, as the river rises and falls dramatically through the year. The river itself, “Ganga Ma” or “Mother Ganges,” is a goddess and so the entire riverbank is a temple where rituals and devotions are performed and offerings are made.

Just north of the main ghat, Dasasvamedh (where ten horse sacrifices were performed during the reign of a long-ago, perhaps legendary king) is the spiritual heart of Varanasi, the Great Cremation Ground. Here bodies are burned 24 hours a day, every day of the year. It is a great thing to die and be cremated in Varanasi, for here death is auspicious, an initiation, a beginning rather than an end, a release from the suffering that is individual existence; so people come here from all over India to live out their last days. The streets and lanes leading to the burning ground are rivulets down which corpses flow to merge, like rivers into the ocean, with the Absolute. Varanasi is only place where the burning ground is right in the middle of the town; everywhere else, it is on the outskirts, far from the center.

A mere few steps away from the fires of dissolution is a small pool, unconnected to the river. Here, the god Shiva and his consort, the goddess Parvati, called on the god Vishnu to create the world so they could spend their time dallying on Ganga’s bank granting liberation to the dying. Vishnu’s first act was to dig this pool, which became full with the world’s first water, the sweat of his effort. When Shiva saw the pool he shook with delight and one of his jeweled earrings fell into its depths, and so this place of primeval creation has ever been known as Manikarnika, the pool of the jeweled earring. And the circle is complete: creation and destruction, life and death live in Varanasi side by side in a cosmic union of opposites.

Most of the ghats have palaces at the heads of their great flights of steps leading up from the river, for kings and nobles from all over India longed to dwell from time to time in this holiest of places. Away from the river, the old city is a maze of narrow lanes filled with temples and shrines (for the gods too want to live in Varanasi), homes, workshops and shops.

The paradigmatic tourist town, pilgrims from every corner of the Indian subcontinent and beyond, and from all walks of life throng Varanasi, and the town lives by serving their needs and catering to their wants. The bazaars, in densely packed arcades, glitter with the finery of the East and the town is famous for, among many other things, wooden toys, religious paraphernalia, brilliant and ornate silk brocades, saris and perfumes.

Copyright © Martin Noval 2012