This morning we woke up early and went to the airport for our Air India flight to Varanasi. Today is the Indian holiday called Holi (holy). You may have seen photos of this. It is the day when they throw liquid and powdered color all over each other. It is supposed to be particularly wild in Varanasi. When we arrived our guide had a silver face and the driver was magenta over a large part of his body. The driver told us that he had some color for us to play with if we wanted to. I was a bit apprehensive thinking about walking around magenta for a week. I had read where you are supposed to coat your skin and hair with coconut oil before “playing.” The playing with color takes place for a few hours before noon. Many people also engage in drinking a certain alcoholic beverage while playing. Then everyone is supposed to go home and bathe. This is followed by visiting family and friends to share a meal together.
So when we got in the car the guide pulled out a bag of color and put some on each of our foreheads.
We also saw our first cows wandering the streets in Varanasi. Yes, it is true they are considered sacred in India and do roam around freely especially in the smaller cities, if Varanasi can be considered smaller with a population around four million.
Mark Twain said, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” (Benares is another name for Varanasi)
Varanasi is a holy city in Hinduism, being one of the most sacred pilgrimage places for Hindus of all denominations. More than 1,000,000 pilgrims visit the city each year.
We were told that since we had gotten up so early and had flown to Varanasi (a one hour flight) that we should rest for the afternoon and that our guide would come for us at 6:30 that evening. We flipped through the television channels and read for awhile. Then we had a late lunch of yummy Indian food and wandered around the hotel garden. They had some amazing flowers growing on bushes. I think they are a type of peony.
We met our guide and traveled into what we thought was a very crowded city (our guide said it wasn’t very crowded because of the holiday) for the evening Aarti. It is a ceremony performed by seven Hindu priests to express gratitude to the Mother Ganges (the river) and wish her a good nights rest. The Dashashwamedh ghat has seven platforms, each with the items necessary for the performance of the nightly ritual. A priest enters each platform and they perform the ritual in synchronized harmony. There was much chanting, drumming and bell ringing. The priests waved incense and burned various things. We had great seats on a balcony, the perks (or maybe not) of being a tourist in Varanasi.
There are two options for watching the Aarti, one is from the bank side of the river and the other is from a boat in the river. We opted for the bank because on day three we will watch the activity on the bank of the Ganges from a boat on the river. During the evening ceremony the people in boats floated candles on the river. It was an impressive sight.