August 23, 2019
Earlier this year I visited Sarnath, a museum close to Varanasi or Banaras as it is also known, where you can see a remarkable stone sculpture of four lions. Commissioned by Ashoka over two thousand years ago, it has been a potent symbol for Indian peoples ever since and is now depicted on every Indian bank note and every Indian Air Force pilot’s badge.
Ashoka, who ruled from 268-232 BC, was unusual: whilst other rulers at this time maintained power through armed conflict, he spread the philosophy of Buddhism and its message of peace across the sub-continent and beyond. The four lions, each looking to one of the four points of the compass, symbolise the dissemination of Buddhist ideals throughout the world.
After his death his empire declined and the script he had used to promulgate his edicts of temperance fell quickly into disuse; it was only after his work had been translated and given prominence by 18th- and 19th- century British scholars that it was taken up by Indian nationalists such as Mahatma Gandhi who preached once again the importance of religious restraint.
There is a great deal more to discover about the fascinating story of Buddhism with our guides at Sarnath. After all, this is where the Buddha is said to have preached his first sermon.
Whilst Sarnath helps one to understand the principles of Buddhism, there is no place like Varanasi for throwing light on the tenets of Hindu spirituality. Varanasi, the ‘city of death’ and the home of Shiva, the Auspicious One, is sacred above all other cities in India. Many of those who come hope that their visit to the city will be their last journey on earth: if your body is cremated here and your ashes are thrown into the river, you are ensured perpetual liberation from the cycle of rebirth.
Although during the reigns of the great Mughal rulers such as Aurangzeb and at the time of the British Raj with its numerous Christian missionaries Hindu dominance in Varanasi waned, it is now stronger than ever. Some 23,000 temples and over fifty ghats converge along an unbroken six kilometre length of the mother river, the Ganges — the longest length of ghats anywhere in the sub-continent.
Varanasi is undoubtedly an unforgettable experience — an experience which it is not easy to digest or to understand. It is best to approach the cacophony and chaos of this great city from a distance, so I suggest that you arrive at my preferred hotel the Brijama Palace by boat.
You ascend from the ghats to the hotel lobby in the oldest lift in Asia which used to be pulled up by chain. The hotel has a very Rajasthan Mogul-empire style with ornately carved inner cloisters bathed in light flooding in from apertures set way above and expansive terraces giving amazing views of the mighty river, the Ganga Maa, below.
Our expert guides will take you to visit the key sites where, as is so often the case in busy Indian cities, the calm and peace of cool inner courtyards contrasts dramatically with the teeming life outside where sadhus, Brahmin priests, monks, pilgrims, worshippers, laundrymen, bathers and even the odd superannuated hippie jostle contentedly together.
Later you might like to take a private boat to watch the funeral pyres from a respectful distance. Only male family members attend. The senior relative is given the ashes to throw into the river, and as it gets darker the flames amidst the ashes take on a more Brueghel or even Bosch-like quality. But there is nothing frightening about this closing ceremony which is held in the very middle of life; indeed, if you return to the river on the next morning as dawn breaks, you will sense the serenity and peace born of so many coming together united by faith, devotion and a simple belief in the river’s healing, purifying and liberating properties.
Mark Twain visited and wrote:
“Benares is holy. Europe, grown superficial, hardly understands such truths anymore and I feel nearer here than I have ever done to the heart of the world; here I feel every day as if soon, perhaps even today, I would receive the grace of supreme revelation.”
ghat: a set of steps leading down to a river or lake.
NB prices shown were current at the time of writing the newsletter and are not necessarily current now.
Please ask for an updated quote.
- A trio of treats on the green island of Pemba in the Zanzibar archipelago
- A word on lions and a trio of treats
- A Sense of Place – India’s most holy city
- A wealth of wilderness walks in Namibia
- Travel snippets from Miles
- A Sense of Place – THE INSIDE TRACK on Cape Town guiding
- A Sense of Place – Migrations of people and beasts: East Africa
- A Sense of Place – An era of revolution and global alliances
- A Sense of Place – A walk on the wild side
- A Sense of Place – The ghost ingredient is back
- A Sense of Place – Liuwa Plains and Kafue National Parks – Zambia
- A Sense of Place – Literati in the Pink City, the Capital of Rajasthan
- A Sense of Place – A Tamil town still connected to Europe, Art Deco architecture, and temple antiquity in Southern India.
- A Sense of Place – Dreamy aquamarine sea and stunning safari with the Makuleke people
- A Sense of Place – A trio of lovely ladies in Hyderabad
- A Sense of Place – Entamanu, the wishing tree and walking with the Hadza tribe.
- We get you to places that others don’t… St Helena, Gt Zimbabwe ruins and Papua new Guinea
- A Sense of Place – Walking in the hippie hills of the Himalayas
- A Sense of Place – The Okavango: the river that never finds the sea
- A Sense of Place – The Great Rift Valley, Laikipia, Samburu warriors and Maasai Olympics.
- A Sense of Place – Escape the world in the Namib Desert
- Africa is a massive continent: a collection of 55 countries
- A Sense of Place – Zambezi Watery Wilderness
- A Sense of Place – Burma: the road beyond Mandalay
- Lake Malawi – Would you rather pay for the advertising or the experience?
- From shoe-shine boy to tourist guide in Ethiopia
- A Sense of Place – Ladakh, the Himalayas
- Dhow sailing, Lions are back in Malawi, Self-drive in Namibia
- Sacred rivers and forts, India
- Piranhas, sting rays, caimans – and still people go into the River Negro!
- Kerala, Southern India – God’s own country
- South Africa: Crucible of the rainbow nation
- Madagascar: croissants and lemurs
- Argentina vs Africa on wildlife drama
- Uganda – Gorillas and Gardens
- Mozambique & Kenya: immigration official on holiday
- Mozambique: Gorongosa and reconciliation in the bush
- Zimbabwe is ready for Tourists again
- Serengeti ecosystem and unbeatable savannah
- Lamu: crab complaining
- Kenya: circumcision
- Zambia: Ellie rescue
- Africans: always smiling
- French sketch
- Kenya: the best hosts
- First visit to Africa 1986
- Namibia, Namib Rand, Skeleton Coast and the ultimate flying safari
- Elephant relocation, quad bike expedition and new Sossusvlei reserve
- Templed out in Tamil Nadu and elephant refuge in Jaipur
- Kenyan sanctuary and family run camp in Zambia
- Australia: Arkaba, Tasmania and Lord Howe Island
- Australia: in the outback and off the beaten track
- India: heavenly Himalayan hideaways, Botswana: fun safari for children and Argentina: hidden homestay in a mountain desert
- Limpopo retreat, Serengeti spectacle and adventure on the Zambezi
- Value for money in Kenya and the trail less travelled in Peru
- Lions in danger, free nights and a new coastal gem
- G and T on demand, hidden beach, micro-light and sleeping on a dam
- Off the beaten track