Varanasi is known to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and also the holiest city in the world. Each of these statuses is impressive on it’s own, and it’s no wonder this magnificent and mysterious city attracts so many domestic and international tourists, on top of the millions of pilgrims and devotees. Love it or hate it, this chaotic, dirty, ancient and incredibly religious city is not for the feint hearted. Every one of our senses was heightened here in Varanasi – we could see, feel, hear and smell the life, death and deep religion surrounding us; there was not one moment outside the confines of our guest house that we weren’t immersed in Varanasi’s captivating magic. We could see it in the people and the buildings, along the ghats and in the river. We could feel it surrounding us as if the deep religion was physically moving; it was in the air and on our skin. We could hear it through the chanting and the temple bells, the early morning rituals and the evening puja. We could smell it in the smoke and in the incense.
We’d been warned about the intensity of the touters here, but that wasn’t actually the biggest challenge for us during our stay here. Varanasi is shockingly filthy; the lane ways are so polluted and covered in waste – we could not take a single step without trying to dodge something nasty, and the smells were often so overwhelming I frequently had to cover my mouth and nose with my scarf. The filth, pollution, rubbish and faeces was something quite difficult to overlook, however, my immense fascination and surprising love for this extraordinary city was thankfully ,much greater than my disgust.
We arrived into Varanasi very early; walking out of the station into a cloud of smoke, hopping into a tuk tuk and then wizzing through the early morning city buzz, we arrived in front of a place that did not look like Mishra Guesthouse… because, it wasn’t. Very quickly we were introduced to Varanasi’s old city’s sprawling maze of tiny laneways that dart and change and turn at every possible corner, and seemed to be brimming with shit, cows and rubbish.
Dodging and near-missing the never-ending mountains of cow, dog and no doubt human poo, whist struggling to breathe in the scent of human excrement infused with smoke, we followed our driver around corners and through lanes and arch ways, squishing past enormous cows, stray dogs, small shrines and images of Ganesh. At one point, two massive cows cornered me and I was forced to step back into a pile of shit in order to avoid being crushed between them both, which was a little bit scary considering the size of their bodies and horns.
Welcome to Varanasi.
I was so excited to be here.
We arrived at our guest house, dumped our bags and immediately headed to the roof top – Varanasi and the river Ganges was a view I was desperate to see, and one that’s now imprinted in my mind forever. The smokey haze covering the massive sprawl of buildings that curve around the Ganges and ghats was spectacular in its own right; like nothing I had ever seen before. Below me, tiny boats were waiting to set out on the river and monkeys pranced between temple roofs. I could hear the city swinging into action – the ding of cyclists and the horns of motorbikes, people talking and yelling and the sound of temple bells ringing out.
We were staying very close to Manikarnika Ghat, the burning ghat, and the stream of smoke billowing up from the cremation sites was constantly smouldering; a sight we got strangely used to during our short stay. It was a lot to take in on our first view, but over the next few days we spent a lot of time up on that roof top pondering the scene.
The mother Ganges was a sight to be seen – a massive body of water peeping out of the morning haze and smoke, people living and breathing around her pulsing heart. People were washing and bathing, performing religious rituals that are too complex for me to understand, rinsing away their sins and empowering themselves as they immersed their bodies in her waters.
The mother Ganges river is sacred to Hindus, often I’ve heard it is considered the “lifeline” for the millions of people who live and depend on her for their daily needs. She washes more than 60,000 bodies every day, and to bathe in her waters is considered an honour and a privilege.
Furthermore, to die in Varanasi and be cremated on the banks of the Ganges guarantees the deceased a life in heaven, and is a devout Hindu’s greatest wish. Those cremated here are released from the cycle of life, death and re-birth – in other words, those who die here better be done with living, as this is the final stop before heaven. The burning ghats smoulder and burn 24 hours a day.
We are told there are many hospices here in Varanasi – people come from all over India to live out their last years, months, weeks and days here in order to die here and be cremated; their bones and ashes then thrown into the river.
It is a great honour to be cremated here, but there are certain people who can not be burned, and instead are thrown straight into the Ganges. We were told that children under a certain age (we were told a few different ages, between 2 and 10 years old – I’m not sure what is correct), pregnant women, holy men, monks, suicide victims, cobra bite victims and those with leporacy can not be burned, and instead are thrown into the river, and either sink to the bottom, tied to a rock, or break free and float as they decompose naturally.
Whilst Hindus consider the river Ganges to be pure, and purifying, it is apparently one of the most polluted rivers in the world. In Varanasi alone, we were told that around 200 – 250 million litres of raw, untreated sewerage flows into the Ganges every day, which is a pretty shocking statistic and one I can not comprehend. With this in mind, I decided against taking a holy dip.
Our days in Varanasi became a bit of a blur – we spent most of our time walking through the old city’s maze of lanes and narrow alleys, dodging cows, motorbikes, rubbish and poo. The old city was a never ending exploration; we continually got lost and stumbled upon something new, fascinating, surprising, shocking or delicious.
The laneways are literally pulsating with religion and spirituality – temples and shrines can be found at every turn, images and statues of the various gods and prints of Ganesh mark almost every doorway of every ancient home. The people of Varanasi are so deeply religious, I found it incredible and fascinating to see them and watch their dedication and devotion. They dress in religious clothing, many people with markings on their foreheads or freshly shaven heads – one tuft on the back-top of their head remaining. The practices seemed so varied, the clothing, the rituals, the markings… We wandered about the city trying to take everything in, understanding so little of what was surrounding us; the complex rituals and practices are difficult to comprehend, and there appears to be so much happening in the one place that it was hard to grasp. The religion surrounding me felt so huge – something so unbelievably large – that I occasionally felt overwhelmed by it all. I wanted to know everything, why people were doing what they were doing, why they were dressed in such a way, what they were making, offering, saying… I wanted to know the meanings and traditions and beliefs behind the practices; I wanted to understand, rather than just walk past. By the end of our three days here, I was left with so many questions that I don’t know will ever be answered.
Within this mix of religion, life and death intertwined; Varanasi is both full of life and full of death. People are everywhere – as are cows – and so are the dead. The first time I saw a body being carried through the streets, the last time, and every time in between shocked me to my core and I could not comprehend what I was seeing before my eyes. We were confronted by death several times on a daily basis during our stay in Varanasi, and it was something I never quite felt comfortable facing.
When we weren’t wandering through the old city, or through the main chowk area, we were usually at the Blue Lassi shop – an institution in Old City that every tourist will know and probably have fond memories of. It was a fantastic place to meet people from every part of the world; we spent many hours over our three days chatting and listening and meeting new people, including one obnoxious Australian man who enjoyed beginning debates with every one he came into contact with, then attacking them, insulting their country, and backing them into a corner until he “won” the argument by force. He appeared to enjoy interrupting everyone, talking over the top of people and squashing everyone else’s opinions. Although he didn’t vote in Australia’s recent election – due to the fact he was on holiday – he took great pleasure and went to great lengths to insult Jake and myself for not voting, and enjoyed pointing that out to all those around us. He had a strong view about travel blogs and anyone who is “stupid” (his words) enough to waste time blogging or reading them, so it’s safe to say he wont be reading this.
Blue Lassi became our second home – we usually had breakfast and dinner here, and sometimes, some incredible street food in between. This tiny hole in the wall shop served up fruit filled lassis and a view of the lane way that was always crammed with the living and the dead. We often occupied the front two seats in the window sill of the shop, watching the pedestrians, motorcyclists and cyclists try to negotiate the spaces between each other, along with the cows, dogs, children, men using the wall as a urinal, chai wallas and food sellers, non-spatially aware tourists and piles of shit. Furthermore, we listened to grieving men as they chanted “Rama nama satya hai” and watched as they passed, waving incense and carrying the bodies of their family members through the streets. Seeing the men carrying the bamboo stretchers, the bodies of their loved ones covered in flowers and gold, red, orange, pink and white cloths, was something I never was quite able to comprehend. It felt so shocking and confronting and at the same time, so final and complete. For me to understand that in just a short while, these bodies would become nothing but ash and be released, in a literal and spiritual sense, into the holy Ganges, is very difficult. Death is not something I am used to being exposed to, but here in Varanasi it was a constant.
More than once during our stay, as we wandered through the lanes, we became caught up in a “traffic jam” of crowds of people and motorbikes, and stuck between a funeral procession. It is difficult to explain, but being unable to move away from the dead body that was held just centimeters from us was, for both Jacob and myself, quite a confronting and disconcerting experience.
We spent a lot of our time here walking the streets and exploring the sights. We were staying very close to the burning ghats, and just once took the opportunity to go and see the cremations taking place. We’re still not sure how we feel about the whole experience, and if we felt ‘right’ going to view the cremations, but we were curious and fascinated by the religious and spiritual practices that make Varanasi so famous world-wide.
By the burning ghats, there are several areas where wood is stored and sold. Massive scales weigh the wood, and there are different types of wood at different costs. There is a “fine art” to using the right amount of wood to completely consume and burn a body (it takes around 300kgs of wood – sandalwood being the preference, and the most expensive), and it was fascinating to see the wood being carried and sold and weighed on the scales. If you can imagine how much wood is needed for just one body, and the number of bodies burned daily here in Varanasi, it’s understandable but hard to comprehend that wood is bought in from up to 1000kms away.
There appeared to be two main sights where cremations were taking place at Manikarnika Ghat – up some stairs to a higher mezzanine level, and on the banks of the Ganges. We were told that up to 200 bodies are burned at this ghat each day.
We climbed some steps, very unsure of where was acceptable and allowed, cautious of touters and scammers, and trying to remain respectful. We stood for a few minutes above the cremation sites, the smoke burning our eyes, watching the burning taking place on the banks of the Ganges, and what I saw will remain with me forever.
Whilst it’s impossible to explain what I felt there as I watched, I understood what was happening to be deeply spiritual; that these bodies and souls were now at peace and on their way to heaven.
The cremation process is a complex one – steeped in religious rituals and beliefs – and one I became fascinated by. Wood is bought by family and friends for the deceased to be cremated upon. How wealthy the purchaser is determines what kind of wood, and how much of it, can be bought. The poorer people may not be able to afford enough wood to completely reduce a body to ash, which results in remaining body parts being thrown into the river. Those who can afford more, can choose where their loved ones are cremated along with other important religious considerations. It costs between around $10 – 70 to burn a body, as we were told.
Bodies of the deceased are wrapped in a simple cloth, then covered in coloured cloths with individual meanings. Before a body is placed onto the wood to be burned, the coloured cloth is removed and the body dipped into the Ganges then smothered with ghee.
It takes around 3 – 4 hours for a body to completely reduce to ash, and male family members and friends observe the process whilst Doms – members of the “untouchable” cast – stoke the fire to keep it burning. If the skull explodes during the burning process, it is considered lucky, as the soul can escape to heaven. If not, the skull is cracked by a family member – usually the eldest son. Quite often, a hip or chest bone remains, and together with the ash, they are thrown into the Ganges when the cremation is complete.
No women are allowed to attend the cremation ceremonies; only male family members watch the bodies turn to ash. I’m not exactly sure what the reasoning for this is as we were told two different stories: firstly, that no crying is allowed at the cremation sites as it will damage the soul on it’s way to heaven, and secondly, that many years ago, the female family members of the deceased – particularly the wives – would occasionally be overcome with grief and throw themselves onto the fire. To stop this, women were banned.
Besides the five or six cremation sites (it was difficult to tell as the cremations were at very different stages of burning) bodies still on the bamboo stretchers were left on piles of rubbish and cloth and dirt, waiting to be burned. Cloth piles were everywhere, and the monsoon rains had left mounds of sediment and filth along the entire ghats. Amongst this mess, I watched as cows chewed slowly on wilting flower garlands and men with giant metal bows sifted through the mud, river water and human ash, searching for gold and jewellery once worn by the deceased.
We didn’t stand there for too long, a few minutes was enough, and we climbed down the steps and through the masses of people and piles of wood, back away from the ghats.
One evening, we attempted to take an evening boat ride on the Ganges – without a torch and due to the mighty monsoon, the ghats were flooded and we walked through filth, mud and water (which I can only assume came from the Ganges and was posing a serious threat to my health). At the ghats, hundreds of people were bathing, brushing their teeth, washing their clothing or simply standing or sitting around observing. Our boatman walked us to where our boat was meant to be, then left and didn’t bother to return – after ten or so minutes standing on the banks of the Ganges in the dark, whilst men stared and I fretted for my health, we left. Squelching back to our room, we headed straight for the bathroom tap where we washed the holy filth from our feet and let the water and soap absorb into our skin for the next half hour or so. I prayed we’d make it through.
The next morning we woke early and made a second attempt to take a boat ride on the Ganges. This time there was light; enough to see where we were stepping and make a decent attempt to keep our feet Ganges-free. There was eight of us in total on the boat, and the poor boatman struggled to paddle whilst our guide explained much of what I now know about the Ganges and Hindu cremation rituals. As we watched the sun rise over the river and the pilgrims performing their morning rituals, the cremations came into full view and once again, I felt confronted by my surroundings. This was such a different world to what I knew.
Our guide answered happily whatever questions were thrown at him, but it was most shocking when one of the Spanish tourists asked whether or not was true that people actually drink the Ganges water.
Cupping his hands, he leaned over the side of the boat, collected some water and poured it down his throat. Meanwhile, I almost vomited into the body of water he’d just drunk from. The same body of water that collects hundreds of millions of litres of sewerage every day, where the bodies of deceased people and animals decompose, where waste from countless sources and ash from thousands of bodies is dumped, and where water-borne diseases are rampant. He drank from one of the worlds most polluted and highly infectious rivers, yet, somehow, he was still alive. He explained, revealing his tiny biceps, that “I believe this is my mother Ganga. If I believe I drink her, she make me strong. If I believe I drink water, I sick.”
Still reeling with shock, I told him that “regardless of what I believe, if I drink, I die.”
We continued the rest of our boat ride, which was really a highlight of our stay in Varanasi, and I continued to fear the possible sight of a floating body.
On our final day in Varanasi I woke with a cold, feeling pretty rotten. We took a walking tour with a guide from our hotel which was 100 rupees very well spent. He took us to some very magnificent religious sites – temples, ashrams, shrines and mosques – and explained in detail about various religious practices, gods, beliefs, and the buildings themselves. He toured us through lanes and alleys we’d not yet discovered during our stay, and we saw a very different side of the old city that was fascinating.
We departed Varanasi on the evening of the 15th at 7:40pm – for once a reasonable train departure time! It meant a final dinner at Blue Lassi after our walking tour, where a shockingly high number of bodies (for me – not for the shop owner who said that’s very normal) were carried past our window sill.
At around 5:30pm we collected our luggage and headed for the train station. Walking through the narrow lane ways with our packs bulging, it was difficult to manoeuvre ourselves amongst the cows, motorbikes, pedestrians, rubbish and excrement, and even a funeral procession. We made it to the ‘top’ of the old city where the chowk began, and were instantly pounced on by several keen auto drivers who screamed and shouted until Jacob got them in order. It was hilarious to watch him holding an “auction” of sorts, attempting to find the lowest offer to take us to the station. The drivers were all so eager to get our sale, and one even resorted to holding his hand in the air like a school child in order to win us over. He did in the end, and we got into his tuk tuk and said goodbye to Varanasi, but not before a police officer stopped him for whatever reason and we were left sitting alone whilst a thousand people stared and the policeman looked very angry.
Eventually we made it to the station; we ate some naan at a very dodgy looking local place and then boarded our train – our very last overnight train in India. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved in some ways; whilst I love the Indian Railways, climbing up to my top berth bunk is becoming too familiar and worrying about my safety and my belongings all night is getting tiresome.
As we sat on our seats, an Israeli girl joined us, and I was grateful for one more tourist – and a female! – in our cabin.
Whilst we sat, waiting for our train to move, a small child shoved his hands through the open window with a metal dish and spent a very long time clanging it against the metal window frame asking us for money. I felt very distressed by this situation, and again, was grateful this was the last train journey for now. We were soon joined by five more men in our 8 bed cabin, who proceeded to stare at both me and the Israeli girl for the duration of our trip – what would turn out to be a whole 16 hours. Beside our 8 sleeper cabin, still in our view, two more boys proceeded to stare and photograph both us girls on their phones, until Jacob gave them such a nasty glare they put away their phones… at least until the Israeli girl climbed up to her bunk, at which point they both took their phones back out and quickly snapped a couple of pictures of her bottom.
At that point, I was so relieved that this was our last train trip, and I was beginning to feel very uncomfortable.
As the train began to move from the platform, much later than 7:40pm, people began to lock up their belongings with chains and sellers moved amongst the carriages selling drinks and newspapers. We bought a drink and a paper – the drink smelled like poison and we didn’t drink it, and the boy next to me spent a good hour leaning way too close to me, pretending to read my news paper whilst I kept nudging him away from me. Now I was feeling more than uncomfortable.
I quickly moved over to Jake’s side of the berth as soon as the fat man in our carriage (who had the world’s most disgusting and terrifying feet!) got up to use the bathroom. I’ve learned by now that on Indian trains it’s every man for himself, so I stole his seat and hid next to Jacob, wishing we could get off. Sitting there was safer in some aspects, but also put me in full view of every man in our carriage, and I spent a good hour or so being stared at by at least six pairs of eyes. I was now hating this train ride, and wanted to get off.
Feeling horrible, I was momentarily relieved for the police presence that walked through our carriage. “Oh good” I thought. Then I saw their massive guns, and wondered why they were walking towards Jacob, the Israeli girl and myself. Each one of us was handed a piece of paper, a pen and a form, something I’d never experienced before on the Indian Railways – I wondered what was going on. The police stood over us, and I proceeded to read the piece of paper, which informed me in poorly worded English that basically, this specific train journey (Varanasi – Delhi) is renowned for intentional druggings and theft of tourists, and that it is in my best interests to decline any food and drink offered to me, as well as to lock up my belongings very securely. We then had to sign a waiver form saying we read and understood the form, which felt a little bit like I was signing my life away. By this point, I was terrified. Whilst I sat their quietly shitting myself, the fat man with foul feet put down his bed, and then lay down opposite me with one eye open, staring at me. The next five or so minutes went something like this… “Jacob, he’s sleeping with one eye open, staring at me… Jacob. He’s still staring. Okay, I’m getting scared, he’s still staring. Jake, he’s still staring, I hate this. Okay, I hate this, I really hate this. Oh fuck, they’re all staring…! Okay, that guy just took a photo of me! Jake! Jake! Jake – seriously – are you sleeping!? How!?…”
Eventually, I climbed up to my bunk (with Jake standing directly behind me so no one could photograph my ass) and lay there fretting. Below me, I could still see staring eyes, and I knew it was going to be a really, really long train ride. Any relief I had felt about this being my last train ride had been replaced with fear, and the wish that this ride would simply be over.
Varanasi was well and truly behind me now, and Delhi was just a few – very long – hours away.