The city of Kashi – or Varanasi, as it is more commonly known now – is stunning. Shiva’s city, the City of Light, was the first major place I reached in India, coming down overland by bus from Nepal. Here’s some excerpts from the notes I wrote about it on my first morning (accompanied by some pretty old photos):
“Wake 4ish, head down to the ghats for sunrise – wander through locals and tourists to find an older man who declares himself the ‘boatman not a cheating man’ and we fix a price of Rs 120.
“Row up and down the ghats as sun rises – hundreds of Hindus washing themselves and washing their clothes by cracking them on the steps, praying in little rituals. Puja (worship) at sunrise is made with drums and bells and a ring of fire. Many just chatting too – a place for a bit of a get-together. Stunning views, with temples leaning into the water, mansions built for maharajahs, red stupas…
The Ganges, flowing down from Shiva’s hair
“A holy man (Brahma) beckons me on his wooden platform and, reassured by a passerby, I sit shoeless with him and stare into his surprisingly golden hypnotic eyes as he shows me his orange brahma string and paints my head for Shiva, then gives me a marigold necklace and another which I have to throw in the Gunga shrine submerged in the river…”
Clearing mud from one of Shiva’s holy wells, or ‘kunds’
Last year during the Indian general election Kashi was trending like mad on Twitter, chosen by the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, as his constituency. There are many problems in the city, particularly in relation to sanitation, pollution and conservation. But it has since been put on a list of 12 heritage cities to go on a national investment programme, HRIDAY, and there is a campaign to make it into a World Heritage site, which as one of the longest inhabited cities in the world it certainly deserves.
Whilst Mumbai is seen as the financial capital of India, and Bangalore the centre of its massive IT industry, Kashi is considered its heart and soul. For me, the City of Light was the highlight of India.