Varanasi, or ‘Benares’, is the holiest of Hinduism’s seven sacred cities. It stands on the banks of the Ganges, at a bend in the river where traces of human settlement have been unearthed dating back to around 1,200BC. Countless shrines and temple towers cluster along the waterfront, to which pilgrims from across the country travel in huge numbers for a redemptory dip. The waters of the Ganges are said to wash away the sins of a lifetime, and Hindus believe that the soul of anyone who dies in Varanasi is liberated from the cycle of rebirth.
Rituals begin before dawn when mist blurs the contours of the sacred ghats, or steps, the worshippers use to descend to the river. The best vantage point from which to savour the spectacle is a rowing boat on the water itself. Chanting, drumming and the ringing of temple bells intensifies as the sun rises, casting the holy steps and their backdrop of sanctuary towers, saffron pennants and parasols in a sublime glow.
The first smoke from the cremation grounds curls from the pyres of Manikarnika Ghat just after dawn and continues through the day. At sunset time, the lamps of evening aarti take centre stage.
The offering of light from an oil lamp, accompanied by the singing of sacred hymns, is a traditional act of devotion for Hindus, performed at countless shrines across India each evening. In Varanasi, however, the ritual takes on a larger-than-life form.
Teams of young pandits (priests) dressed in saffron silk robes gather on a special stage at Dasaswamedh Ghat to enact a carefully choreographed routine that begins with the blowing of a conch shell, after which incense burners are swung and flaming torches waved in a ceremony synchronized with loud drumming and cymbal crashing. A huge crowd turns up for the event, which is as popular with visitors as pilgrims.