Varanasi is said to be one of the world’s oldest cities. It’s also India’s holiest. Pilgrims come to Varanasi from far and wide to cleanse their souls in the sacred River Ganges. The river’s edge is lined with resting spots, known as ghats, made of concrete slabs where pilgrims come to wash away their sins.To get a proper taste of the city’s unique mystical energy, we took boat ride on a wooden paddle boat along the river at sunrise. Here we witnessed hundreds of pilgrims gathering along the ghats to partake in their daily session of puja (prayer). Some remove nearly all their clothing to completely submerse themselves in the water. Others splash the water all over their bodies or sit in complex yoga poses, eyes closed, facing the rising sun. And at sunset, too, the ghats are crawling with pilgrims along a river dotted with thousands of flickering candles and flower petals.
As the beating heart of the Hindu universe, Varanasi is also the place where people come to cremate their loved ones. Upon arriving, we discovered our hotel was conveniently (and I say this with the heaviest hint of sarcasm) located directly next to Varanasi’s main burning ghat. At the burning ghat, on the shores of the Ganges, bodies are cremated in public 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.Due to the religious significance that comes with being cremated along the holiest of rivers, many people come to Varanasi to die. Others arrange to have their bodies shipped here shortly after their death. But no matter how they arrive, nearly all of them go in the same way. First the bodies are wrapped in beautiful cloths. Red fabric is used for young unwed women, orange for married women and gold for older women. Men are wrapped in white cloth. The bodies are then carried to the ghat on a bamboo stretcher by sons and relatives of the deceased. The sons shave their heads (sometimes leaving a little patch on the back unshaven) the day before the cremation ceremony as a sign of grieving.
Once the bodies arrive at the river’s edge, they are unwrapped from the cloth and dunked into the river. The sons then open the mouth of the body, dip their hands in the river and fill the mouth with holy water. The body is then carried a few feet away from the river where a pile of firewood awaits. After the body is laid down the sons and male relatives are given a torch. The eldest son, with blazing torch in hand, leads the others in circling the body five times before lighting the body in flames.Some visitors may catch a glimpse of the burning ghat from afar or possibly a brief look from a boat ride down the river, but due to the close proximity of our hotel, we were given a brutally up-close-and-personal experience. Each time we left our hotel, we were face to face with death. We found ourselves in the middle of funeral processions. We had to fight our way around dead bodies and grieving families. We watched sons as they lit their dead mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers on fire. We witnessed the unforgettable smell of burning flesh and the sight of arms, legs and heads set ablaze.
Cremation, however, isn’t for everyone. There are a select few whose bodies go directly into the river. Pregnant women, children, holy men and (strangely enough) anyone bitten by a cobra are instead tied to a stone and dropped off a paddle boat into the middle of the river.As you can imagine, the Ganges is notorious for being one of the dirtiest rivers in the world (second only to China’s Yangtze River). On top of the hundreds of corpses, bones and ashes lining the river floor, sewage lines from the city run directly into the water. You can certainly imagine our concern when we witnessed our 10 year old boat driver quenching his thirst with a big gulp of water from the river and hundreds of locals brushing their teeth and washing their clothes at the river’s edge each morning.
More than 100 bodies are cremated in Varanasi each day and around 200-300 when the sweltering heat of the summer brings even more its way. With customs and traditions so different from my own, it’s so easy to judge with a critical eye. What I’m slowly but surely learning, however, is that just because we do things differently, doesn’t mean it’s the right and only way. Really, who is to say putting a body in a wooden box in a hole in the ground is all that better?
More than a month later, the sights, sounds and smells of Varanasi are still with me. I can’t say I’ll be running back any time soon, but I can say it’s a place that has burnt an indelible mark on my mind.