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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Witnessing the Visual and Spiritual Spectacle of Varanasi



As a travel writer armed with a camera and intent to document a place as real as possible, there are a few places that stand out and remain within my memory as crystal clear, as if it happened only yesterday. I could still hear the touts bugging me with “Hello boat?” - their way of offering their overpriced boat services along the Ganges River fronting the historic Ghats. For all the annoyance of the tourist trade in Varanasi, the place itself, a visual spectacle, which overflows with spirituality, will make anybody with a camera busy shooting at many fascinating subjects.

Young boys taking part in a morning ceremony along the Ghats

A few friends have told me: “India will challenge all your senses, especially Varanasi.” The sights, sounds and smell coupled with the passing winter wind, all combined to provide me with a very memorable experience. Witnessing various religious activities along the Ghats, which fronted rows of beautiful temples that are architectural wonders, some abandoned, some still commissioned, gave me a thrilling front seat to a wonderful view as our boat set sails over the sacred Ganges River.

The activity along the Ghats can be chaotic but still visually pleasing
The Holiest of All Cities

Varanasi, or otherwise known as Benares, is a city in the Northern part of India located primarily in the banks of the sacred Ganges (Ganga) river in Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi is considered to be the holiest among the so-called “SaptaPuri” (the seven sacred pilgrimage cities in India) in both the Hinduism and Jainism religions. Varanasi is also credited with playing a crucial role in the development of Buddhism. Located 13 kilometers northeast is the sacred Buddhist site called Sarnath, where Gautama Buddha first taught the “Dharma.” Today, Varanasi is known as the “spiritual capital of India.” 

Hindus bathing and praying at the Ganges River
Activities along the Ghats showcase religious rituals highlighted by the daily cremation at the Manikarnika Ghat (“the burning Ghat”) and other holy rites. Most Hindus believe that meeting death at Varanasi brings instant salvation; therefore, you will see Hindus from other parts of India afflicted with an untreatable illness coming to Varanasi to spend their dying days there.

Women doing their laundry using the sacred waters of the Ganges
I tried hard not to focus on shooting just with my camera so I don’t miss seeing all the hustle and bustle with my own eyes. Still, my camera was able to capture many fascinating images.


As the sun over Ganga rose and the colors of the temples and the Ghats turned from red to gold, with smoke emanating from the burning Ghat, where the cremations are held every day, I was awestruck. What a sight to behold, both in a mystifying and interesting way!

Temples teeming with rich architectural details lined up along the Ghats
I find Varanasi as a hit-or-miss place. It isn’t for everyone. This place will make you discover what kind of traveler you are. For those who explore places to discover a new culture and to witness an entirely contrasting world inhabited by people still adhering to ancient religious traditions, Varanasi is the kind of place never to be missed.


As a traveler and a photographer, a place like Varanasi shook my core in myriad ways: From people-watching to drooling at the sights, particularly its architecture, to learning amazing facts about a new religion, culture, and history, the photographs I took barely scratched the surface of my overall experience. I hope you will be enticed to pack your backpack, grab your camera, and discover Varanasi. Be warned (or be seduced): It isn’t like any place you’ve ever been to.

a boat ride during sunrise is a truly magical experience

(this article appeared on the July 12, 2015, issue of Manila Bulletin and parts of it also appeared on Resource Magazine Online on May 19, 2015)


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