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Varanasi, India – Life and Death on the Ganges
crowd gathered around the
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
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.
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.
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.
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.