As I rolled into the train station in Varanasi in late December, I realized I was more excited about this stop than any other. I’d wanted to see Varanasi for a long time. With bizarre stories from history class and mind-tweaking images from the Discovery Channel bouncing around my head, I wondered if it could be as surreal as it seemed.
The city sits on the edge of the Ganges river, the most holy river for the millions (billions?) of Hindus around the world. Making a pilgrimage to the Ganges for Hindus is like the trip to Mecca for Muslims. To touch, taste, bathe, and have your remains cast off in the nectar of the river is spiritual bliss for them. With nothing to compare the religious fervour to back home, I was captivated.
After throwing my bags down in a hotel near the river, I walked down the narrow alley toward the water, past brightly colored carved stone doors, a temple dedicated to Shiva, cows eating garbage, and a few massive piles of cow poop, I looked up and there it was – Mother Ganga. I could feel the energy built up in this place from the millions who’ve come over the years looking to fulfill their spiritual desires.
The city runs for about 2 miles along the western side of the river. While the usual chaotic Indian city traffic and commerce exist inland, there is a labyrinthine buffer of narrow winding pedestrian alleys called ‘galis’ between that and the river itself, too small for vehicle traffic. The galis are crammed with little shops selling chai, paan (a mix of tobacco, betel nut and other spices wrapped in a green leaf and chewed for a buzz – seemingly everpresent in every local’s mouth and ending as puddles of red spit on the ground), clothing, fried snacks, tailor services, and just about anything else you can imagine that can fit in small quarters. At some point, those galis will dump you out onto the ghats, which is the flat stone and cement paved area that joins the city with the river. This is the stuff of the pictures you’ve seen. The ghats slowly terrace downward with a series of wide and narrow steps until they reach the water – almost like a massive cement beach that runs the length of the city. It is here, on the ghats, that the magic of Varanasi is played out.
Walking up and down the ghats, you get a glimpse of all that happens here. Every morning, locals jump in the frigid waters to scrub themselves clean before praying at a nearby temple. The city’s laundry is done here as well. Men and women scrub the town’s unmentionables on slanted rocks at the water’s edge, quickly pulling the clothing from the river, up and over their heads and then down onto the rocks with a loud slap that can be heard from far away. That laundry, including miles of brightly colored saris, pants and shirts is then hung out to dry along what seems like kilometers of the ghats.
Acting as the social center as well, men and women gather on the steps drinking chai and telling stories. Young boys engage in dogfights in the sky, flying simple crepe paper kites tethered to their hands with abrasive strings that, when maneuvered correctly, will sever the opponent’s kite string sending it falling listlessly to earth, with other kids screaming and running after it to catch the spoils. At various times when I looked up in the sky, I could count over 150 kites at once – all being flown from the ghats or rooftops around the city. Young boys staring off into the sky, jerking on strings and smiling. Others play cricket on narrow portions of flat cement, sending balls sailing off into the river occasionally.
The ghats are also dotted with saddhus or ‘babas’ as they’re known. Bearded, usually dread-locked and always haggard looking old men dressed in orange with various colors of holy powder on their faces, who’ve given up their wordly possessions in search of a spiritual fulfillment. They carry little silver buckets around looking for donations, depending on the kindness of others to continue their pursuits. I met a one who was interested in only one thing. “Baba no need money. Baba only need charas.” ‘Charas’ is the Hindi word for hashish – and there’s a lot of it in Varanasi. Varanasi is the city of Shiva and many claim smoking it is a way to pay homage to him.
My first night in Varanasi, I wandered again down to the ghats, this time in the dark. As I took a right, I entered an area that had a strange feeling about it. I passed dogs lurking in shadows and then massive piles of chopped wood stacked 10′ in the air with ancient looking metal scales sitting in front of them.
The buildings around the area were all charred with soot, giving the entire area a creepy gothic look and feel. As I turned in the direction of some light to my left, I noticed the orange glow of flames from below licking the top of a platform. I moved toward the light cautiously and as I made it to the edge, I realized where I was. As I looked down, I counted 17 fires burning on the flat area below me, just up from where the water met the ghats. There were 17 bodies being burned on individual funeral pyres. Unbeknownst to me, I’d picked a hotel nearly directly overhead of Manikarnika Ghat, the main cremation ghat of Varanasi.
Just then, a man named Raj approached me, seeing the dazed look in my eye. He explained that it is the highest honor for a Hindu to have his/her remains cast into the Ganges. Some make the journey when they’re close to death, supposedly ending their days in hospice nearby so they can quickly be cremated and then spread in the river. He explained that each body needs a particular amount of wood to burn completely and that in order to get it just right, they weigh the body and then the wood I saw stacked outside with those massive scales to produce an efficient fire.
As we were standing there, I could hear men singing and marching and turned around to see that they were carrying something on their shoulders down the gali behind me. It was a body laying on a stretcher made of bamboo and covered in a red sheet trimmed in gold. He explained that members of the family accompanied body down to the pyre. First, though, they have their heads shaved out front (something I also saw that day) in a very unceremonial way as they sit on a curb near above the pyres. The body is then carried down to the pyre area and set on the wood. One of the male family members sets it alight and those that helped out go back up and help bring another down. This happens 20 hours a day, 365 days a year. When one burns out, they remove the ashes and toss them into the river just feet away. Then another is put on the same pyre and so on.
Locals gather with family members and stand above the pyre area and watch. I was one of them. As I stood there in the dark, with the heat of 17 fires raging below me casting off an orange glow, I thought for a moment that it had begun raining. As I looked up, I realized that tiny bits of grey were slowly floating back down to the ground all around me. I was standing in a rain of ashes. I can safely say that was the most surreal experience of my life.
Raj explained that there are only 5 different kinds of bodies that are not cremated. Sadhus (the Babas I mentioned before), pregnant women, babies, lepers and those that have been killed by snakes (seriously). They are wrapped in cloth and weighed down with rocks before being tossed in to the center of the river. Hence the stories of bodies floating by in the Ganges that I’d heard for years. It’s all true.
Unable to process what I’d seen, I headed back to the hotel to sleep it off, nearly run over by more marching teams of men with the dead on their shoulders.
The next morning, I came back. I had to take it all in during the day. The fires were out, but there were many people still hard at work. Some shoveled up the piles of ashes and along with the stray ceremonial red sheets from the ashes, tossed them into the river as well. I saw a few standing in the water in their underwear, submerging themselves periodically. I later learned that they were trying to find rings, other jewelry or anything valuable that hadn’t burned with the body and which would have been tossed into the river with the ashes. (So what do you do for a living??) As I walked away, I saw dogs sleeping on the piles of smouldering ashes, the only source of heat in the city.
That experience drove home the depth of the spiritual experience for Hindus. It was also incredibly refreshing in a way, coming from a place where something so natural is covered up, rarely talked about and certainly not celebrated. As I walked up and down the ghats afterward, I suddenly had a new respect for all that I saw there and seemed to be looking through new eyes.
I also started to think more about the river itself and learned more about the bizarre relationship the locals have with it. As I started to see more and more men urinating along the ghats, often into little rivulets that ran straight into the river, as well as others actually shitting on the ghats, sometimes into little streams that also run directly into the river, I became confounded. It is considered a holy act to be cremated here and have one’s ashes (or body) interred here. Yet people also come from around India and the world to bathe (including brushing teeth), do laundry, wash and even drink the water (which most do every day). How do these things co-exist? People shit in the most holy of rivers – not 50 yards from where others bathe? And they each know the other is doing it? This does not compute.. No surprise, I learned of the massive and growing pollution problem (not that I needed anyone to tell me) and the state’s inability to do anything about it (a local filtering system often goes offline, dumping the filtered garbage back into the river during malfunctions). Ah, my head hurts again..
I decided to stop trying to figure it out. This is going to sound insane, but despite all I saw happening at the river’s edge, the city itself was actually much cleaner than I thought. And after a while (my plan of 6 days there turned into 10), it all seemed normal – the thousands of barehand-formed cow dung cakes drying in the sun up and down the ghats (fuel for fires for the poor), men (and a few women)
squatting to piss in not-too-discreet corners, children playing in the water and smiling, seeing men scoop up water and drink it every morning. And the thousands of smiles of happiness on all of them.
And a smile of my own at the rest of it – the bright colors everywhere, the fruit markets, sari-clad women, orange babas, temples, men laughing over endless cups of chai, bells ringing from countless bicycle rickshaws weaving in and out of traffic, religious devotion unlike I’ve ever seen, palpable energy from people who are living their spiritual dream, waking to the sound of the slaps of laundry at the river’s edge, watching the sun come up lit candle offerings floated out across the river, massive nightly offerings at the river’s edge with choreographed dancing and music.. There’s too much in the memory bank to tell on this one.
I did make a few new friends along the way as well. After running into him all over town, Raj, the guy that helped me figure the whole cremation thing out, eventually invited me to his home to have lunch with his family – twice. His family was amazing. We did a lot of smiling at each other (Raj was the only one that spoke English), sitting on the floor and eating wonderful food, steps from their balcony that overlooked the burning ghat.
And Praveen, a humble young guy that spent days with me explaining the oddities of the local culture, sipping chai and laughing. Turns out he’s a bit of a celebrity as well.
I could go on. But my hands hurt. And you’re probably bored. Thanks for reading.