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Daybreak with a dip in the holy Ganga at Varanasi
Last month, on my annual sojourn to India, I took a trip to Varanasi, the spiritual capital of India. Also known as Benares or Kashi, it is an important religious center for Hindus, replete in both cultural and historical significance. Benares rises religiously at the break of dawn and a dip in the Ganga is de rigueur for everyone. I couldn’t resist the allure of watching the daybreak across the holy waters of Ganga. One such morning, I found myself breathing in the sacred air at Assi Ghat, one of the biggest and southernmost ghats along Ganga. The ghats – sets of steps leading down to the water along the river – are places of great significance in Benares. It’s along these ghats that ancient Hindu traditions, rituals and festivals come alive in full pomp and splendor.
A boat ride brings back memories of Cusco
I hired a traditional Benarsi boat at Assi Ghat and set forth on the waters of Ganga, admiring the bustling city and its ramparts. As I gazed upon the open vistas of the mighty Ganga and soaked in its early morning ethereal ambience, I was overcome by the realization that no matter how much we travel to see the world, we remain a tourist abroad, and we always like to come back to the familiarity of our home. Benares very well could lay claim to being my spiritual home in this vast universe.
As I sailed along the holy river steeped in history, time and traditions, my mind was flooded with memories of a recent trip to the ancient southeastern Peruvian town of Cusco, also known as the gateway to the majestic Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. Both, Varanasi and Cusco, are considered to be among the oldest cities in the world, continuously inhabited for over 3,000 years. Both are deeply steeped in local culture and traditions. A visit to both these places feels like a pilgrimage.
The mystical allure of Machu Picchu
As I laid my eyes on the sublime splendor of Machu Picchu ruins nestled along the high Peruvian Andes, I felt an eerie sense of other-worldliness. I felt caught in a time warp in the mighty citadel, the adjoining mountains and the floating clouds, all in their pristine, virgin, immaculate state, untouched by time. I was completely taken in by the magnificent panoramic view of the sprawling Machu Picchu. This remote location draws multitudes of travelers looking for adventure, silent retreat or even mystical experiences. Mountains are alluring to people all across the world, but the Incas considered the mountains to be sacred, and Machu Picchu is a standing testament to that faith.
While climbing the last section of the mountain, I felt the wind blowing across this verdant citadel situated in the clouds, carrying with it stories of the valiant civilization of the Incas. I couldn’t help but marvel at the fine workmanship of Incan civilization to build this fortress on a steep ridge situated in one of most inaccessible sections of the central Andes, surrounded by rivers and a canyon. The granite faces and sheer drop of precipice adds to that mystical allure of Machu Picchu. No wonder these stupendous ruins lay undiscovered even by the Spaniards who conquered Peru in the 16th century.
Hiram Bingham, the American explorer and politician who discovered Machu Picchu in 1911, remarked, “Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land.” To me this mighty citadel in the clouds is a living embodiment of deep spiritual beliefs. Archaeologists have since made more discoveries in the region and led many to believe that Machu Picchu held spiritual and religious significance for the Incas. I could feel it in the air!
Benares and Cusco, bound by spirituality
Cusco is situated at more than 11,000 ft above sea level in Peruvian Andes and Benares at nearly sea level, with the city almost spilling into the sacred Ganga river. But the spirit in the air couldn’t be more similar. People flock to both these places to seek enlightenment, to find solace or to gain inspiration. The narrow, winding alleys of Benares and Cusco have an air of spirituality, which captures the imagination of the tourist, the writer and the spiritual alike.
Strolling aimlessly at Plaza de Armas in Cusco and at the bazaars near Vishwanath temple in Benares, I marveled at the sense of connectedness that I felt with all of humanity. The local culture and rituals couldn’t be more different in these two places. But beneath the veneer, both spoke to their respective historical legacies, imbued with an air of resiliency, tranquility, and harmony with nature.
Diana L. Eck, professor, and author of several books on popular Indian religion, writes of Benares “This city illumines truth and reveals reality. It doesn’t bring new wonders into the scope of vision but enables one to see what is already there. Where this eternal light intersects the earth, it is known as KASHI.”
Perhaps, the same could be said about Cusco as well. Cusco and Benares, two cities separated by over 10,000 miles, emit the same unifying air of spirit, heritage, and culture.