Heavenly tale of an ancient city

Heavenly tale of an ancient city

Young Post junior reporters is enchanted by the bustle of life and death on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi

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The step-like ghats of the ancient city of Varanasi bustle with births, weddings and cremations as Hindu pilgrims flock to the banks of the sacred Ganges river for religious rituals and rites
The step-like ghats of the ancient city of Varanasi bustle with births, weddings and cremations as Hindu pilgrims flock to the banks of the sacred Ganges river for religious rituals and rites
Photos: Geetu Vashishta
Mark Twain once said: "Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together."

On a recent visit to this 5,000-year-old Indian city, now known as Varanasi, I found the American writer was right.

Even as far back as around 637, a famous Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar and traveller called Xuanzang visited Varanasi. He reported the town to be a centre of religion, education and the arts.

Today pilgrims, travellers, and backpackers come from all over the world to Varanasi, an important pilgrimage site for Hindus. Many people come here to die. They believe that by dying at this sacred place their souls will be transported directly to heaven.

In Hong Kong's fast-paced environment, we don't have much time for spiritual activities. In Varanasi, however, people's faith is part of everyday life. You can hear the sounds of bells and hymns coming from many temples from early morning to late at night.

Varanasi lies on the banks of river Ganges. Hindus believe the river can wash away sins if you take a dip in its holy waters.

Believers bring newborns for a bath in the river. Others seek its blessings when they get married. Yet others bring their dead to be cremated at its banks and immerse their mortal remains in the Ganges.

Although the river has become polluted and unhygienic, worshippers still bathe in it. Deaths, births and marriages all take place on the ghats, the concrete steps on the river's banks. Children play cricket there. Barbers and masseurs ply their trades. Stray cows and dogs loll about on the ghats. Each of the 84 ghats has its own mythology.

Unlike Christians, Hindus cremate their dead. In Varanasi, more than 200 cremations take place every day. Wealthy people use fragrant sandalwood, not ordinary wood, for cremations.

Dead bodies are bathed in butter milk and honey before they are dipped in the Ganges. After cremations by Hindu priests, ashes are released in the water.

In the evenings, hundreds of worshippers gather at the city's main ghat, Dashashwamedh, for prayers while bathed in yellow light.

Boat rides on the river are popular with tourists. Hundreds of small and big boats take people on rides from dawn to dusk. Boatmen will tell mythical stories about the sacred river during trips.

Varanasi is sure to mesmerise you. The city's ancient narrow lanes and crumbling buildings take you back in time amid the soothing sound of prayer and fragrant smell of incense.

No visitor from Hong Kong can fail to be enchanted by the myriad temple bells, the colourful rickshaws, the strong Indian tea and the bustle of life by the holy Ganges.

Dhruv is a student at YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College


A bounty of prayer offerings by worshippers are laid out for the gods on the banks of the sacred Ganges river


A priest performs evening prayers at the city's holiest ghat, Dashashwamedh, during a service attended daily by crowds of people


A Hindu sadhu, or mendicant, stands by a pile of wood logs used for cremating dead bodies on a river banks in the belief that their souls will go straight to heaven from Varanasi

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