Varanasi is 1 of the world’s oldest continuously inhibited cities and 1 of Hinduisms 7 holy cities. Pilgrims come to wash away a lifetime of sins in the Ganges River and families come to cremate their deceased, liberating them from the cycle of birth and death.
Varanasi was intense and like most of India was aggressive, polluted and dirty. Military presence was high and angry bulls filled the tiny alleyways. I was pleased that it took almost 2 months before a bull rammed me, as a fear of cows would have been inconvenient. However, the culture and tradition that filled the city was unique and spiritual.
Nick and I spent the majority of our time along the river observing the 80 plus ghats. During the day the weather was hot and there were only a handful of locals on the banks. We hung out with wandering cows and fed some paper from our guidebook to hungry goats. We watched men paint tar on boats with their bare hands as we had previously seen locals painting fences in Kolkata without brushes. We people watched then continued to the burning ghats.
We approached a burning ghat where we saw 20 bodies burning and 10 soaking in the river before being cremated. We could walk within 10 feet of the fires. We observed and were curious. We had many questions that were later answered by some generous locals.
Bodies come to Varanasi within 1-2 days of dying. They are wrapped in cloth, white for men, orange for women and red for young women. Children, pregnant women, lepers and Brahmin (priests) are not cremated as children are innocent, leopards will transfer their disease and priests are pure. Instead, a large rock is attached to their bodies and they are sunk in the river.
Untouchables, individuals in the lowest caste, wrap their bodies and carry them on decorated bamboo stretchers down busy alleyways to the ghats. The most popular ghat is Manikarnika Ghat where 200-300 people are burned per day and they work 24 hours. The deceased families, identifiable as they have shaved heads, splash water from the Ganges River on their deceased and let their body soak.
The body is placed on a prepared pile of wood and a calculated number of logs are placed on top as the cost of the cremation depends on the weight of the wood and type (sandalwood being the most expensive). Cremations cost on average $12- $71, however families who cannot afford this often place whole bodies in the Ganges. We were told that where the body is burned, closer to the river, on a platform, etc. all depends on your caste. Various spices and ghee are sprinkled over of the pile before being lit. It takes approximately 3-4 hours for a single body to burn. We watched over 15 cremations in various stages. Near the end, the worker rearranges the burning logs, ash and body with a long bamboo stick. It’s easy to identify the body being jabbed, as it’s soft and almost blubbery in comparison to the incinerating wood. The final ceremony includes breaking the burning skull with the bamboo stick, in order to let the spirit escape. After the body is fully burned, the ash is collected in a large pile on the bank. We were told that workers go through the pile searching for jewelry to keep or sell before the ash is washed into the river.
Nick and I sat and observed for hours. Myself and 1 other tourist were the only women among many men. Women are forbidden to attend Hindu funerals as they may cry, which as bodily fluid is viewed as a pollutant. We could hear the bodies burn; they didn’t crackle like the wood, but sizzled and popped. Clouds of smoke overtook the area with ash afloat.
Nick and I also explored the city and visited Vishwanath Temple. This temple was of the highest security we’ve visited and took multiple security checks and documentation our passports before we gaining entry. A local fished a lay of flowers out of a holy pool of sour milk and placed it around nicks neck. They then took a handful of the coagulated milk and mud (clay texture) and rubbed it across both Nick and my forehead. This brought good luck and smelliness to our families.
We took an evening boat ride along the river. At night, the ghats were full of Indians enjoying music music and spotting a famous Bollywood actress. On the boat, we watched the glowing flames on the banks, pilgrims bathing, children at swim practice and youth playing cricket and other games on the steps of the ghats. We lit a lotus candle and watched it drift through the river.
Varanasi was by far the most touristed placed we have visited in India, however we understood the draw. Westerners are so removed from the process of death. Between practicing yoga and meditation or contemplating death and culture, Varanasi was a though provoking place full of magical energy.
Kashi Chat Bhandar- this busy local spot is delectable! We enjoyed the aloo tikka (potato chat), tamatar chat, pani puri and kulfi fadoola for desert.
Dosa Cafe – great dosas, idly, vadas and other South Indian specialties
Keshari Restaurant – over 40 paneer curries
Blue Lassi – meh