|Varanasi - Ganga Aarti (Evening Prayers) at Dasaswamedh Ghat|
|Old Post Office Building, Varanasi|
|Exploring Lanes and Discovering Holy Cows.|
|Varanasi - Boats on the River.|
|Juna Akhada Priests going to The Aarti.|
The Kashi Vishwanath Temple, near the river Ganges, is Varanasi's main attraction for Hindus. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the temple has been destroyed and rebuilt over millennia. The latest edition was commissioned by Ahilya Bai Holkar in 1780.
The Jyotirlinga (sacred stone symbol) is 60 cm (1.9 ft) tall and 90 cm (2.9 ft) broad, the golden spire soars 15.5 metres (51 ft), over the gold-plated dome. The gold plating consumed 1000 Kgs of gold, offered by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. There is also a GnanaVapi (wisdom well), located in the temple compound. This well is located between the Temple and the Gyan Vapi Masjid, the mosque built by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb over the foundations of the original Kashi Vishwanath temple, that he demolished. Both the temple and the mosque share the same complex, albeit separated by an iron fence.
The other temple that's on every pilgrim itinerary is the Sankatmochan Temple dedicated to the Simian God, Hanuman. Hindus believe that a visit to this temple wards off bad luck, troubles and travails coming their way. The best way to visit this temple is by boat.
|Ganga Aarti Evening Prayers.|
|Crowds Gathering for the Evening Prayers - Aarti|
Similar Aartis or Prayers are performed at Haridwar and Rishikesh, too, but the Varanasi Aarti, probably to provide a spectacle for tourists, has become a highly stylized and choreographed ceremony. Although it's spectacular, many devout people consider it to be too much of an extravaganza to be really meaningful in a spiritual context. If the normal prayers are not spectacular enough, in Varanasi, a Maha Aarti (great prayer) takes place on a particularly elaborate scale at the end of the Hindu year on Kartik Purnima.
|Travelers watching the Prayers from the River|
The Aarti is performed on a stage by two groups of young pandits (priests), all draped in golden and saffron colored robes, and holding ceremonial lamps. It commences with the blowing of a conch shell, and continues with the waving and circling of oil lamps in elaborate patterns.
The movement of the lamps, synchronized to the rhythmic chants of hymns and clang of cymbals, the sandalwood smoke from the incense burners and the devotional music all combine to create a mesmerizing effect against the darkened sky.
|A Young Priest at Prayers|
|The rapt crowd at Prayers.|
|Tourists Boating at Munshi Ghat|
|Vijaynagram and Kedar Ghats|
|The Last Journey - Cremation Ghat|
There are at least 84 Ghats with several being owned privately. The famous ones are the ancient and main Ghat Dashashwamedh, which is located close to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.
|The Lonely Mourner|
|An Evening Boat Ride on the Ganges|
The disadvantages of traveling with a religious friend were evident. He wanted to visit every temple possible. The boat ride and visit to the Sankatmochan temple were manageable and we had a great view of the Ganga Aarti from our boat.
|Cremation Ghats - Please Photograph from a distance|
We viewed the Cremation Ghats from a distance.
Many visitors think that the Cremations at the Ghats have specifically been setup for their edification. They crowd in, forgetting that they are intruding on someone's grief. Please use a telephoto lens and click from afar.
|Calm Early Morning Boat Ride|
|Lassi - The Ultimate Yogurt Drink|
One magnanimously sacrificed his sleep for a night to humour his friend; and tickets procured, we set out very early for the temple.
The stillness, calm and the peace of the shrine were enjoyable. Inspired by the blessings of Lord Shiva, we wended our way to Dashashwamedha Ghat for an early morning river cruise on a row boat, followed up by a traditional Varanasi breakfast of deep fried Puri, Kachori, Sweet Jalebi and Lassi. All very tasty, but with enough calories to give one a cardiac arrest.
|Varanasi - Vegetarian Thali|
An impartial observer like the author would hold Lucknow as the undisputed winner of the Mughalai and Non-vegetarian food competition; with Varanasi taking the honors in Vegetarian cuisine, Indian snacks and the outright all India Championship for Indian Sweets, especially those made from Milk and Cottage Cheese.
The Vegetarian Thali, an 'All you can eat' platter offers a variety of snacks, salads, vegetables, yogurt preparations, breads, rice and sweets is very popular here and you can find a Thali to suit most budgets.
|A 'Budget' Non-Vegetarian Thali|
|Banarasi Dum Aloo|
Banarasi Dum Aloo, a tasty potato preparation of fried potatoes in a rich mildly spiced gravy, is a local specialty.
|Aloo Papdi Chaat|
|Varanasi - Street Food Vendor|
Paan, a betel leaf and nut preparation, either sweet, aromatic or containing tobacco, is not really food, but is used as a mouth cleanser after meals.
This Banarasi Paan is something that Varanasi
is famous for, all over India.
|Paan - The Mouth Cleanser|
Silk weaving is perhaps the most renowned art of Varanasi, with Banarasi Silk Saris forming an indispensable part of an Indian bride's trousseau. The world-famous gold and silver brocades and richly worked silk saris are passed on for generations as heirlooms.
|'Budget' Fabrics Drying after Finishing|
|Banarasi Silk 'Zari' Saree|
|Brocade Silk Fabrics|
The hand-knotted carpets of Mirzapur, Bhadoi and Varanasi are world famous and form the bulk of exports from this region.
|Bhadoi - Finishing Hand Knotted Carpets|
Carpets are judged by knots per square inch and the best ones can have upto 800 (20 x 20) knots per inch. Prices are determined by size, the number of knots, the complexity of the design and the quality of silk or wool.
|Persian and Tribal Designs|
|A Handmade Mirzapur Silk Carpet|
The main shopping areas in Varanasi are Chowk, Gyan Vapi, Vishwanath Gali, Thatheri Bazar, Lahurabir, Godoulia or Dashswamedh Gali and Golghar. Inveterate shoppers can bargain hunt to their hearts content.
|A Carpet Factory|
|Cheap but Good Imitation|
|Mahabodhi Temple Bodh Gaya|
True to our intent of following the pilgrim trail, we set out by early train for Bodh Gaya, sacred to all Bhuddhists as the place where The Buddha gained enlightenment and also an ancient city venerated by Hindus. Bodh Gaya is normally the last stop of the Allahabad, Varanasi, Gaya travelers. Our comfortable train got us into Gaya, the railhead, by late morning. Hiring a car, we checked into the very comfortable OTC mess and then proceeded on to visit Bodh Gaya.
The main attraction in Bodh Gaya is the Bodhi Tree under which The Buddha gained enlightenment and the UNESCO world heritage Mahabodhi Temple.
The Mahabodhi Temple is one of the four holy sites, in India, related to the life of Lord Buddha, the other three being Kushinagar, Lumbini and Sarnath.
|Trunk of The Mahabodhi Tree|
After the decline of Buddhism in India, this temple was abandoned and neglected. It was restored by Sir Alexander Cunningham of the British Archaeological Society, along with J.D. Beglar and Dr Rajendralal Mitra, in 19th century.
|Crowds at Mahabodhi Temple|
In 2002, the Mahabodhi Temple was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site with the following description. "It is one of the earliest existing temples of India; it provides exceptional records for the events associated with the life of Buddha; it is built entirely in brick."
The Government of Bihar is responsible for its protection, management and monitoring. The lacuna in security and monitoring was cruelly exposed about a month ago when terrorists place some crude bombs inside the temple, injuring a few people, but luckily doing little harm to the temple.
|Monks at Mahabodhi Temple|
|Great Buddha Statue Bodh Gaya|
In November 1989, the Great Buddha Statue, was unveiled and consecrated by the His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama, who blessed the 25-meter statue. It is the first great Buddha ever built in the history of India and was constructed by the Daijokyo sect of Buddhism from Japan. The Statue is now a symbol of Bodhgaya, next to Mahabohdi Temple
Apart from the Mahabodhi temple, almost all Buddhist countries are represented by their temples, and each built according to that countries architectural style.
|Thai Temple Bodh Gaya|
|A Temple Altar|
The Archaeological Museum, the Mohanta's Monastery and Tibetan Mahayana Monastery, too, are worth visiting if you have the time.
|The Bhuddha's Image|
We visited the main highlights of the holy town of Gaya, which is venerated both by Hindus as well as Buddhists.
|Vishnupad Temple Gaya|
|'Pind Daan' Ancestor Worship - Vishnupad Gaya|
The temple is also famous for the ritual of 'Pind Daan', that is worshiping and offering prayers and food to the soul of one's ancestors, with many devout men shaving off and offering their hair. Throughout the year groups of Hindus are seen participating in the 'Pind Daan' ceremony, along the Falgu River.
|The Ghats on Falgu River - Gaya|
As Gaya is not connected by Air but very well connected by train, we took the late night Rajdhani Express, an extremely comfortable train, back to Delhi.
|Temples Galore - too much of a Good Thing?|
On the one hand, not being a particularly religious person, one had had a surfeit of temples, pilgrimages and pilgrims.
|Pilgrims -Bodh Gaya|
One thing is certain, however, that the memories and scenes of the journey shall linger for long in the recesses of one's mind.
As it stands, one can hear the High Himalayas calling out to me. Hang Gliding at 9800 feet at Bir and Billing should be the perfect antidote!..... But thats another story......