Life and death in Varanasi

Varanasi is India’s oldest city, located along the banks of the Ganges River in NE India.

It is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, and one of the holiest in Hinduism. There is something spectacular about walking the same roads as other people have for nearly 4,000 years.

This is where Hindus go to pray, wash away their sins and cremate family members. Varanasi is considered an auspicious place to die because it offers moksha, liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Whatever is sacrificed and chanted here is one thousand times more powerful than if the same deeds were performed elsewhere.

For me, the ghats, large stone slabs of steps that lead down to the banks of the Ganges, are the most interesting parts of the city. Varanasi has at least 80 ghats that offer countless sights: people bathing, doing laundry, brushing their teeth, shaving, boys laughing and swimming and holy men smoking pipes. There are even men on boats selling souvenirs. And of course, workers regularly dump ashes from funeral pyres into this very same water.

Varanasi is raw and intense. It’s an open book into people’s personal lives. This is where life and death come full circle, where the most intimate rituals take place in public. On one ghat, people soak naked in the waters while offering prayers to Ganga; on another ghat, there are burning corpses in plain view.

I arrived in Varanasi after a 14 hour overnight train ride from Orchha. Due to construction on the tracks, I had to jump off the train and walk on the tracks with my backpack in 47 degree heat. I can only imagine how much hotter it felt near the furnace-like heat at the cremation sites.

Like all Indian cities, Varanasi is crowded, dirty and insane. Traffic moves all the time: no stoplights and no order, yet everyone seems to get from one place to another in one piece.

Nothing is hidden in Varanasi. Filthy four year olds carry tiny babies, still unable to sit up, begging for money. Dogs are limping, some with no fur, others staring blankly into space. I saw people with leprosy, elephantiasis and no limbs, all begging on the streets. There is death and decay all around, but oddly enough I didn’t smell death and decay, only smoky incense.

Varanasi is a city that never sleeps. Waking up at 5 AM to watch the blood red sun come up, the ghats are already full with pilgrims performing morning prayers, sun salutations and meditation in silence. The cremation ghats run 24/7 and some funeral pyres are still hissing, steaming and spitting flames.

In Varanasi, death is raw, transparent and simple. I must admit, I was fascinated and shocked by the funeral rites, but as the days progressed, I felt honoured to witness these intensely personal moments. I grew to admire the simplicity of the ceremonies and appreciated the honesty and rawness of it. Death is simply a passing event and while different cultures have different practices, death is the same everywhere: it’s inevitable.

At the end of the day, I’m back on the boat, where I see men and women taking holy dips, meditating in solitude, heads bowed in prayer. As the sun goes down, the evening ritual of worship called the Ganga Aarti begins. The air is filled with prayers, chants, music and incense. Cymbals crash, bells ring, drums beat and tea lights are placed into the Ganges.

I placed three tea lit paper boats with flowers into the river and asked for blessings, as I watched the candles float away in the dark. They, and dozens of other candles, looked beautiful as they lit up the darkness.

Once the Ganga Aarti started, priests and pilgrims chanted and sang, ringing bells, waving lamps in a circular motion, accompanied by the chanting of mantras and hymns. More candles and incense are lit and flower petals and sweets are sprinkled into the river as offerings to Mother Ganga.

I watched this one hour ceremony on a boat with hundreds of others. All of the boats gather together, gently bumping off each other as children jump from boat to boat. It felt intimate, even though I was surrounded by strangers.

Another day in Varanasi.


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