Raga Music and Boat Tours in the City of Salvation:
My first impression of the holy city of Varanasi India was driving slowly through narrow and congested streets. I simply watched our surroundings out the windows of the tour van. The driver pointed out several men who were carrying a gurney over their heads while weaving their way through traffic. Others followed behind playing the drums. I realized they were carrying a deceased person. Our driver said that the man must have been of old age since they were drumming in celebration of him having had a long life. I knew only a little about this place, I knew that it is ancient and has been renamed a few times. Varanasi is also known as Benares, or Kashi -the city of lights. It’s a large metropolis and world-renowned as one of India’s Holy Cities. My yoga class and I planned our stay next to Assi Ghat for several days while we studied classical and traditional raga music.
Arrival: The Palace On The Ganges
After making it through traffic, we settled into our hotel. The Palace on the Ganges is literally across the street from the holy river Ganga. Each morning pre-dawn there are gatherings for the Hindu aarti ceremony. It’s a celebration of prayer and musical offerings to the river, also known as Mother Ganga. Aarti at Assi Ghat was often followed by stage music and early morning yoga. People will be found bathing in the holy river. I was happily surprised that there was not too much litter found near the shore since trash bins were installed. The hotel was very clean and the staff took great care to make sure we had everything we needed. It was furnished with beautiful antiques, each room had a theme in the decor. There was a relaxing reading room with a view and a rooftop restaurant looking over the river. Conveniently located too, especially since my groups’ music school was only a few minutes walk away.
Traditional Raga Singing Lessons
After a few days of practice, I could remember how to walk to Deaobrat’s music academy. The city is so dense and street signs are nowhere to be seen, one has to know where they are going. The academy has been run by many generations of musicians. Our teacher Deobrat Mishra, is a classical music artist. We got to watch an intimate concert performed by him and his father on the sitar. His cousin brought it home on the tabla drums. It was my first exposure to traditional Indian music. They always put on amazing shows, but it was the singing lessons that captured my heart.
First, we learned that the musical scales are totally different than they are in the West. Then as a class, we practiced how to manipulate our vocals in those wavy raga patterns. We sang songs about Ganesha the elephant god, to help us remove any obstacles in our path as we walked through this very intense city. In this video below, he is singing a story about Shiva. It’s fitting because Varanasi is also known as the city of the Hindu god Shiva. Becoming an active a part of the traditional music was a profound way to learn about the culture of India. After singing and walking around, our class took boating tours down the river.
Boat Ride Tours
Take a walk down to the Ganga at Assi Ghat and find guides waiting to take you across or down along the river. Choose to ride over to the other side of the river and stop for views of amazing architecture downstream. Another popular activity is eating fresh local watermelon and having a picnic on the sandy beach on the other side of the river to view the city lights. However I suggest planning ahead, this is a great company offering themed tours: Varanasi Tours Package. Tourists can book many different types of tours on the topic of choice. Tours based on the arts culture or spirituality are my favorites. Speaking of spirituality, this holy city has one more name that I have yet to mention. It’s famous for Hindu cremation, and yes, viewing the cremation grounds can be included in boat tours.
Last Words: The Land of Moksha
Varanasi is also known for being The Land of Moksha. There is a belief that if one is cremated there they will become released from the cycle of rebirth and reach Moksha. When I first arrived in this city I was astounded to see the body being carried through the street. To the locals, this is a common sight. This city is probably most famous for the ceremonial burning of dead bodies. The only downside to this is that it contributes to the already thick pollution of the air. My piece of advice to avoid getting sick while visiting is to bring along a filtered face mask. They are great for any travel in of Asia where there are high amounts of air pollution. I bought this reusable one with a top safety rating: Guoer N95 Pollution Mask. It is unfortunate about the air quality, but this city is an absolutely amazing place to travel for its vibrant culture and ancient holy history.