Mike visited:

» Thailand
» Myanmar (Burma)
» Laos
» Cambodia
» Vietnam
» India
» Nepal
» Egypt
» Jordan
» Uganda
» Tanzania
» Malawi
» Mozambique
» Swaziland
» South Africa

View a map of his route.

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Varanasi, India – Life and Death on the Ganges

crowd gathered around the body
I'd seen plenty of death in Varanasi already: stiff corpses wrapped in golden fabric blazing on the riverside funeral pyres, bloated cow carcasses blocking the narrow alleys of the old city, dead dogs floating at the edge of the Ganges. I even watched a charred human torso bob past my water taxi. But when police officers pulled the smartly-dressed body of a young man out of the river in front of my guest house, it hit me on a totally different level. Death is not a tourist attraction. But, like the crowd of gawkers that gathered around the body (the victim of an accident or foul play), I too watched with morbid fascination. This was the first dead body I'd ever really seen.

Of course, Varanasi is full of life too. Two million people call this 2,000 year old city home, and they carry on the religious, musical, and spiritual traditions that have made it one of the holiest and most famous cities in the world.

A City on One Side of a River
Varanasi may be the only city in the world that sits on just one side of a river. The towering and decrepit buildings of the old city crowd the west bank of the Ganges, while the east bank is a vast expanse of nothingness – desert in the dry season, water during the monsoon.

bathers on the Ganges
Sweet Mamma Ganges
The Ganges River is the practical and spiritual heart of Varanasi. Citizens bathe in the river every morning, swim in it for fun, wash their clothes in it, wash their livestock in it, drink its water (some of the most septic in the world), and use it for transportation. Spanning the riverside is a series of vast concrete steps known as ghats. All aspects of daily life are conducted on the ghats: vendors sell food, drink, flowers, and clothing; sadhus (holy men) perform yoga at dawn; young men play cricket; barbers shave victims with straight razors; masseuses contort the bodies of the unsuspecting on the steps. The huge business of cremating bodies also takes place on the ghats.

The Burning Ghats
For Hindus, Varanasi is the place to die. Dying in Varanasi guarantees moksha, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death. The bodies of the dead are cremated on the ghats and the ashes are spread into the Ganges. Visitors are free to watch the cremations from a distance.

peaceful ghat
The burning ceremonies follow ancient rituals. Bodies are wrapped in fine, colorful cloth and carried to the river on bamboo stretchers. At the riverside, the bodies are given one final dip in the holy Ganges before being placed atop huge piles of wood and set ablaze. Family members take part in every aspect of the ceremony, their grief on public display.

Elaborate, colorful, and dramatic, the ceremonies are fascinating to watch – at first. But then the men who mind the fires start poking about with big poles, adjusting the logs and repositioning parts of the body, which flop from the end of the pole like slabs of wet charcoal. The grief of family members – especially the sons of the deceased who traditionally shave their heads as part of their grieving – can be pretty intense too. After a few minutes, you can't help feeling like an intruder, and the instinct is to flee.

cow splatter
A Sprawling, Chaotic, Cultured City
A walk through the old city of Varanasi is like a walk through the ancient scenes of India that we harbor in our mind's eye. Narrow cobblestone alleys cut mazes through markets and storefronts that are rife with color and commotion. Holy cows roam freely, grazing on garbage and snatching fruits and vegetables from inattentive shopkeepers. Massive cow paddies dot the streets and sidewalks. Locals seem to have a sixth sense for avoiding these glistening, stinking piles; I wish I could say the same for myself.

Varanasi is also one of the main centers for studying classical Indian music, yoga, and meditation, with tourists and pilgrims coming from all over the world to study under famous gurus, yogis, and instructors.

Holy Cow!
Peace on the River
In spite of its culture and charm, the dirt, chaos, and pollution of Varanasi can take their toll. After just minutes in the old city, the horns and exhaust would chisel my nerves down to the quick, and I'd be desperate for some peace. So I'd flee to the ghats, where (relative) quietude and serenity abounds.

It's on the ghats too where the real spirituality of Varanasi becomes apparent. Sitting on the steps, watching the intimate rituals of daily life play out before you, it's easy to see why this extraordinary city has commanded the reverence and devotion of natives and visitors for thousands of years.

Posted on February 26, 2003 09:42 AM


Comments (post your own below)

Congratulations on making it to Yahoo's pick of the day:

Also, congratulations on living out nearly everyone's life-long dream. For me, 2 months was only a teaser. I'm trying to plan out the year long thing right now.

Posted by: kraabel on February 26, 2003 10:51 AM

This is their review:

February 26, 2003

Join Chicagoan Mike P as he slowly winds his way through Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Africa. It's just part of a year-long trek the he's been itching to take for a long time. Along the way, he's taking digital video, snapping tons of photos, and writing travelogues of the journey. Mike's travels include a stop in Phnom Penh, a place he initially finds dirty, chaotic, and lawless, but eventually grows on him. He learns to cook Thai food in Chiang Mai and offers recipes of his favorite creations. While in Myanmar, he is charmed by the warmth and optimism of its people, despite the country's rampant corruption and poverty. India's chaotic Kolkata immerses Mike in traffic, pollution, great meals, and friendly folks. Even the worst bus ride ever doesn't deter this intrepid traveler. Videos take you from the haunting killing fields of Cambodia to a fitting for a custom-tailored suit in Bangkok. Unlike Mike, most of us can't quit our jobs to go around the world, but thanks to this exceptional online diary, we can follow this vagabond vicariously. (in Recreation & Sports)

Posted by: kraabel on February 26, 2003 10:53 AM

Hey Pughey. Great post! One of the best yet. I'm thinking as I review your journeys... that traveling the world may in fact be easier than planning a wedding. Cheers!

Posted by: Chaz on February 26, 2003 12:35 PM


Varanasi is nasty. The place is a piss hole. Indian people are great but they are real dirty. I had a lot of Indian friends growing up in NYC. They told me all about it and they smelled themselves. Don't get sick over there and good luck.

PS - those girls in Cambodia--were guys!!

Posted by: Kevin on February 26, 2003 04:13 PM

This small record is quite a vivid description of the city, Varnasi. Of course it is dirty and people consider the ganges (septic) water, An elixir. But the ganges water in my water can (Filled in 1982 by my grandma as holy water when she visited Varnasi) neither shows not a single germ formation in it nor it is stale.....How do u explain this....Before upbraiding varnasi try this yourself. Be true to your heart before belittling a holy icon of a religion.

Posted by: swethameenakshi on February 27, 2003 10:54 AM

I would like to add more..Mr.Kevin should hold his tongue... He must learn to grade people by hearts and not by mere outward appearence.

Posted by: swethameenakshi on February 27, 2003 10:58 AM

Mr. Mike,
Excellent and well written article. Also, congradulations on the Yahoo pick. Ill make sure to send the announcement on to family and friends.

Posted by: Roane on February 27, 2003 02:03 PM

Vagabonding continues fascinating. I look forward to more!

Posted by: Ken Macpherson on February 27, 2003 06:24 PM

Question: Do you go to cemeteries and take pictures of burials, or do you think that India is your personal playground and you can do whatever you want? Show some respect!

Posted by: Brian on February 28, 2003 08:19 AM

I think it's great that he took those pictures. I'm pretty sure that the population of India would be just fine with it as well. It's a sign of respect to their culture that he wanted to share that image with the rest of the world. How would people ever learn about other cultures if we never too photographs of these touching moments. Are you saying magazines like National Geographic use the earth as their playground, as well?

Posted by: kraabel on February 28, 2003 10:23 AM

To kraabel: Your answer indicates you've never been to India. If you had you'd know that most Indians would NOT be 'just fine' with it. That statement exudes such western arrogance. The one thing Indians ALWAYS ask of foreigners who visit Benares (which is the correct name) is that you DO NOT take photos of the dead!

Posted by: Brian on February 28, 2003 01:56 PM

To Brian: Mike is capturing life as he sees it in his travels. If you don't like what you see then simply go somewhere else.

Posted by: Lance on February 28, 2003 07:16 PM

You're a sad bunch of people if all you can do is see the world as your own personal Disneyland. These are people, not amusement rides. If you can't grasp that concept... People were attacked for photographing bodies at the Twin Towers, but somehow when it's 'capturing life' it's ok.

Posted by: Brian on February 28, 2003 08:19 PM

Brian: there are no photos of the burning ghats on this site. Where did you get that impression?

The first photo in the travelogue is of the crime scene that I describe in the opening paragraph.

The photo in the "burning ghats" section is just a regular ghat. I meant for the "peaceful ghat" caption to distinguish it from the burning ghats. Also, there are no fires or piles of wood in that photo.

Although many locals refer to the city as Benares, the official name (the one that's on all the new maps) is Varanasi.

Posted by: mike on March 1, 2003 12:17 AM

Amen, Mike!

Posted by: anonymous on March 1, 2003 04:16 PM

This world is filled with 'Brians' and their zealotism, ignorance and war. Those who see and assume and decide for others in their righteousness make me and many others ill. Doesn't matter if you're a Repub, Dem, or Other--
Tolerance, Culpability, and Moderation are the new virtues.

p.s. sorry to clutter a TRAVELOGUE with political jabber. you inspire me with every post; be safe.

Posted by: LuckyAmerican on March 3, 2003 09:03 AM

Your photographs are wonderful. But even without them, your words paint the picture vividly. Wonderful site!

Posted by: Alyce Wilson on March 3, 2003 04:10 PM

Great and facinating site. Technically well presented as well. I envy your unique travel situation. God bless you on your journey.

Posted by: Jeff Doss on March 3, 2003 05:06 PM

Hey Mike,

There is an old Turkish proverb that states "Travels make a man a richer than those who do not and have more" I like to believe this is true. Any chance you can chronicle all of the different BEERS you have sampled during the journey so far? Maybe a small subsection of the site. Just a thought from an avowed BEER Lover..

Posted by: Ricky P. on March 3, 2003 06:49 PM

Hello Mike,
found this site through Yahoo pick and like it very much. I work and live in China, Changchun, Jilin province, look on the map. Are you coming there, too? If you do, you have a standing invitation to stay for a few days. Am thinking of doing this also in two years and want to support your effort.

Posted by: Susanne on March 4, 2003 03:06 AM

Dude! Killer site! Great travels, photos and stories. I'm going on a "13 monther" from Oz to the UK via SE Asia and the Middle East starting in October and was thinking about making a sight very similar to this. Thanks for the inspiration, stay safe and have fun!

Posted by: Aeon on March 4, 2003 03:48 AM

great dream life you're enjoying pal...though demanding as "worst bus ride" says it all. Congrats to make it to Yahoo!
if your itinerary includes Karachi, Pakistan...Our family would be more than happy to be your'll get more than enough people sharing notes here:-)

Posted by: Emad on March 4, 2003 04:33 PM

Mike, did you ever think your travels and your site would create such banter from the undead?

Congrats on the Yahoo pick of the day!

I wait anxiously for your postcard!

Keep up the fantastic work!!!
Again, as always, I am envious!!

Posted by: Scott Ahrens on March 4, 2003 10:05 PM

I am extremely inspired by your site and have just recently considered a similar travel adventure! I obviously have a lot of research ahead of me to do and sites like yours and have got me started in the right direction. Thanks for proving that you don't have to win the lottery to follow your dream to travel the world!

Posted by: Angela on March 4, 2003 10:33 PM

I had been to Varanasi on a different task. I had to get some bureaucratic work done to get my admission transferred from the Famed BHU to another University for my Post graduation studies.
But I had missed the oppurtunity to visit Ghats and the famed Kasi Viswanath temple (Especially since it is supposed to be religiously a sacred duty). In the hustle bustle of my work, I just had some time to observe the City at the surroundings of the University and was amazed to note how different it was from my own city. Within a single country there was so much of diversity in people, culture, food and development too. I agree with your comments about the narrow roads and chaotic traffic. I think that is to be expected from a old city where modifications are hard to do and development has to be done very carefully. If you stop by Jerusalem, you will find that the old city within the gates are not used by motorists and hence its possible to walk comfortably. But then thats not as big as Varanasi, Varanasi has been alive and developing all along and so its hard get it "aseptic". I don't say that its not possible but with the current system of administration its not possible. I hope you would have better luck in other places.
In country that supports 1 billion plus people, its hard to expect Uniformity in development, especially after the ruthless plundering in the past and the Plundering going on in the present within the state.
Sorry for the politics, but then the reasoning finger finally points there.

Posted by: Arul Subramanian on March 5, 2003 05:05 PM

fascinating reading.
LA etc were too organised, unlike here where overcrowding chaos with adrift velocity.
both have their charms.
observations informed by human universality or by imperial hubris are great reading like a kaliedescope.

a travelogue on the web is a great idea. thanks to Yahoo one ran into you -- enjoy the world its yours to exhilirate

Posted by: upendra on March 5, 2003 11:04 PM

Hey Mike.
I've been following you every step of the way. This really is an incredible site. You've sparked my interest in countries I would previously never have even really thought about.
It's really great you were able to make a dream like this become a reality. I'm still curious how you put it all together.
Looking forward to the next update. We're gonna miss at the St. Patty's Dat party this year.
Stay Safe.

Posted by: Rich Berry on March 6, 2003 11:20 PM


You're trip so far sounds great. I see you are making a stop in sunny South Africa. If you find yourself anywhere near Johannesburg and would like someone to show you around, please feel free to look me up.

Posted by: don on March 14, 2003 02:42 AM

Congratulations on a life fantasy come true. Enjoy and treasure your trip (like if I have to tell you). Let me share my 3 secrets of enjoying life:

1. Work as if you don't need the money.
2. Love as if you have never been hurt.
3. Dance as if you were all alone.

Good luck and may GOD bless you now and always.

Posted by: Rick Gomez-Roji on March 20, 2003 03:50 PM

You have done a great job with the site, I am truely impressed. I have spent a lot of time in the past two weeks checking it out. It sounds as if you are having a great time, a trip anyone would be envious of. I have really enjoyed your short videos. Well pal, I just want to drop a line, stay safe, and we'll see you soon in Chi-town

Scott B.

Posted by: Scott Bainbridge on March 24, 2003 03:58 PM

Este foi um dos lugares de maior energia que eu ja senti em minha vida. A todos que visitarem Varanasi, nao deixem de entrar no Ganges e sintam de perto as aguas
sagradas que possibilitam o crescimento interior.
Namaste a todos que amam a India como eu. Madhava.

Posted by: madhava on March 24, 2003 08:04 PM


Your site is fantastic. I've read through it all since first seeing a link on "This Is true". The combination of your excellent photography, insightful and eloquent descriptions, and the clean and navigable web design make this one of the best sites on any topic I've seen in years.

You are living out the dream that so many of us are too busy or too scared to follow, and showing what we can learn if we just get out there and see the world with our own eyes. You're an inspiration to me and (I'm sure) to many others.

Keep up the good work,


Posted by: John Dalton on March 25, 2003 12:15 AM

Mike, I'm enjoying your site and sharing it with my students on an Asian Religons class at the Maine College of Art. BTW, your photo above, labeled "peaceful ghat," shows a building where I did field research for months as a grad student! The tallish building to the right is the ashram of the late Swami Karpatri Ji and his main disciple, Vedanti Swami, still lives there. The next building to the left of that one (they ajoin) is an ashram (akhara) of the Naga swamis; and the next building left from that (not in the photo) is the private residence of Swami Swarupananda, the present Shankaracharya of Jyotir math. Anyway, thanks for ringing some bells in my memory. And be safe.


Posted by: Dana Sawyer on April 24, 2003 12:56 PM

Just got back from traveling in India. Visited another holy city on the ganges and was fascinated by their devotion to the power of the water and their endless gods. I actually found the hindu culture quite oppressive. The fact that they feel they have to do enough good works or devoit things to be freed from their sins is hard to imagine. Enjoyed your article. It's very diffucult to describe the complex culture and ways of the Indian people.

Posted by: Julia on June 18, 2003 08:43 PM

Comments closed.


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