Originally created 04/18/99

Mystical spirit of India



VARANASI, India -- Pottery shards displayed at the local university museum are proof that the Ganges has been drawing men and women to its banks at Varanasi for at least 3,000 years.

Today, they come to offer prayers and take holy dips at a site considered one of India's most sacred. They come to cremate their loved ones at the ghats, literally "steps" leading to the waters. They come for mundane rituals as well: Early morning will find Varanasi's citizens brushing their teeth, scrubbing their clothes or shampooing their hair as they wade in the Ganges.

And they come from far away -- pilgrims, of a sort, from France, Japan, Britain, the United States and elsewhere travel here to glimpse spirituality at the place where Hindus believe they can wash away their sins. It's almost possible to imagine that the patter of tour guides is another form of prayer, and the flash of cameras against a gray dawn sky an offering to the river.

Varanasi is easily accessible by air, with daily flights from New Delhi or Bombay on state-run Indian Airlines or the private carriers Jet or Sahara. Beware: Flight schedules can be disrupted by fog during the high season of November to February, when the worst of the heat is past.

Accommodations come in a va-riety of forms, from tiny guest houses on the banks of the Ganges to five-star hotels in the Canton-ment area, a slightly quieter and less-crowded neighborhood in the northern part of the city.

Varanasi, on the western banks of the Ganges in north-central In-dia, is sometimes called by the old form of its name, Benares, or by a host of praise names such as Kashi -- "the luminous."

In its centuries-old temples, the swirl of color and sound and smell testifies to the Hindu belief that everything the world offers can be found in Varanasi. Blood-red vermilion paste is smeared as an offering on elephant-headed idols; brass bells are rung to catch the attention of the gods; incense sticks are lighted to release cloyingly sweet smoke.

Hindu scripture described Varanasi as so excellent a place, all the gods made it their home. Chief among the gods of Varanasi is Shiva, lord of both destruction and creation, and chief among the city's many temples is Vishvanatha, where Shiva is manifest in a black stone column altar known as a "linga."

Friendly merchants with shops across the narrow alley from Vishvanatha allow non-Hindus, who cannot enter the temple complex, to climb to a second-floor balcony to view Vishvanatha's gold-plated dome.

Some visitors study the region's religious music or philosophy under one of the gurus whose advertising fliers plaster the city's old quarter. Others are content to watch life on the banks as they float down the Ganges on rented boats.

Viewed from the tour boats that ply the river, religion is a calm, abiding undercurrent in the life of Varanasi. A glimpse at religion as a divisive force in modern India can be found just a few steps inland, where a 17th-century mosque stands on what was once the site of a Hindu temple.

The mosque's age-old reputation as a flash point for Hindu-Muslim violence is evident in the chain link fence and armed soldiers that surround it. In 1992, Hindu militants razed a mosque in Ayodhya, 200 kilometers (124 miles) north of Varansasi and declared that the Varanasi mosque would be next. The Ayodhya attack sparked Hindu-Muslim rioting across India that killed more than 2,000 people.

Muslim emperors razed scores of Hindu temples in Varanasi when they ruled northern India from the 13th century to the arrival of the British in the 1700s. But Hinduism endured and even flourished.

Hinduism is also at the roots of another religion that spread around the world from very near Varanasi. The Hindu-born prince who became Buddha -- "the enlightened one" -- preached his first sermon at Sarnath, just northeast of Varanasi, 600 years before the birth of Christ.

For 50 rupees ($1.19) -- it may take some haggling -- tourists can ride one of the ubiquitous three-wheeled taxis known as auto-rickshaws from Varanasi to Sarnath. Buddhist pilgrims from Japan, Thailand, Tibet and elsewhere come by the busload to light incense at a towering stupa at the site of Buddha's "sermon in the deer park."

The Bharat Kala Bhavan museum at Benares Hindu University houses graceful sandstone sculptures, paintings and photos that record all of Varanasi's spiritual threads -- Muslim, Buddhist, Christian and, especially, Hindu. The scraps of pottery in its glass cases hark back to the earliest days, when religion only vaguely resembled what it is today.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Flights are available every day from New Delhi or Bombay on state-carrier Indian Airlines or private carriers Sahara Airlines or Jet Airways. The one-way fair from Bombay is $210, from New Delhi $110. Travel agents can provide details on package discounts offered by Indian Airlines and Jet.

GETTING AROUND: A car and driver can be rented for the day for as little as $30 in Varanasi -- check hotel travel desks or local travel agents. The best way to navigate Varanasi's traffic-clogged streets is by the black-and-yellow, three-wheeled taxis known as auto-rickshaws. Most auto-rickshaw trips will cost just a few dollars.

LODGING: A night's stay is $140 at the Taj Ganges, where visitors will find two decent restaurants inside and a lovely mango orchard out back. Budget accommodations can be had for as little as $20 a night.

DINING: Unlike some Indian cities, Varanasi is not known for spectacular Indian cuisine. The best bets are hotel restaurants, where dinner for two will easily be less than $50. India's beer is recommended; its wine is not.

WEATHER: Varanasi is hot and humid in the summer, cold and foggy in winter. The best time for a visit is between January and March.

INFORMATION: For more information, click on "tourism" at www.indiagov.org or call Uttar Pradesh Tourism at (91-11) 332-2251. Varanasi is in India's Uttar Pradesh state.