Varanasi: Cremations on the Ganges

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Varanasi is crazy. It’s bustling, large and has a deeply rooted culture. It is also considered one of the least changed cities on earth; so it’s like walking back in time a thousand years. Lonely planet describes it as “one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on Earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners.”
This is most noticeable down by the shores of the Ganges. There are over 80 ghats along the river in Varanasi. The steps are filled with people at sunrise, when pilgrims come to pay respect to the sun, and again in the evening when cremation rituals are performed along the waters edge.
Varanasi is one of the holy cities of Hinduism. It is one of the longest, continually inhabited cities on Earth, and is aptly named the “beating heart of the Hindu Universe”. It is an honour to die and be cremated in Varanasi. People migrate from all over India to have their loved ones burned at the funeral pyres on the Ganges river. Hindu’s believe that cremation on the steps of the Manikarnika Ghat offers Moshka (liberation from the cycle of reincarnation). The entire city is ominous and magical and eerie; it is unlike any other city in India.
We grabbed a cycle Rickshaw and took the painfully (literally with all the potholes and the tiny seat) long 20 minute journey to the Assi Ghat. The ghats are beautiful in their own unique way. They are bustling with people, strewn with litter and they ominously emerge from the Ganges river. From the water, the ghats look like they should be part of a horror film. Tall, rustic and almost gothic style buildings loom over the ghat steps. It is the perfect setting for a Sherlock Holmes murder to take place, in the dead of night, shrouded in the mist of the river and covered by the shadows of brown brick buildings.
But the ghats are never quiet. People, boats, stray dogs and cows constantly exist along the rivers edge. It’s where Varanasi comes to life.
We walked about a kilometer, up and down the steps of the ghats towards Old Town. The atmosphere was chaotic and full of anticipation. Men got their boats ready for the evening surge of visitors, funeral pyres were made, bodies were swathed in cloth and set on wooden stretchers and people of all ages swarmed the riverside.
We came across hoards of old, bearded medicine men. They were stark naked and painted white with a chalky powder. They wandered around with walking sticks, their beards and hair in dreadlocked tatters as they prepared for the evenings events. With them, walked religious men in the bright orange robes that seem to be so popular here. They huddle in groups under makeshift shanti tents and drink chai tea in the heat of the day. If you’re ever looking for quiet contemplation by the river, Varanasi is not the place…
We hopped on a boat in the early evening, with two lovely Indian couples from the South. Boating along the river is definitely the best way to see the full beauty of the Varanasi ghats. Although still noisy, being in a boat left us with a slight sense of serenity in an otherwise busy world. The old man slowly paddled us along the river towards two of the cremation ghats. The burnings had already begun.
Apparently there is a precise art to a perfect cremation. Each piece of wood is weighed and measured according to the size of the body. Each block of wood costs money (all depending on the type and size of the wood). There has to be an exact right amount to completely cremate a body without going overboard. The pyres are all set up accordingly during the day, then the bodies are carried down the steps at 6:00 for the ceremony. At the second ghat we saw three bodies, all swathed in cloth, dipped in the sacred Ganges river before being placed upon the fire. It’s an eerily beautiful sight.
From there we watched the nightly ceremony. Rows of men stand in a line to perform the ritual for the dead. They are all lit up in golden lights and surrounded by a fiery glow. The beating of drums and bells echoes across the river and children hand out small candles to all the spectators below. The candle is surrounded by flowers and, once lit, is placed in the river to float away. If your candle floats a long way, it means you will have a long life. Both Kelsi and my candles went far, although Kelsi’s had a near escape with a boat oar on the way (sounds like Kelsi’s life). The river was beautiful when it was all lit up with floating candles and crammed full of row boats. I have to admit though, the ceremony was just too long. They performed the same dance over and over again with different object in their hands. What at first was awe-inspiring to see, soon became just an uncomfortable boat bench and a crowd of people. After 2 and a half hours, our boat began to slowly sink and so we cruised back to the shore to go home. We walked the ghats to see the final cleanup of the ceremony before grabbing dinner in old town and heading home.
The following day we only had the morning to explore. We checked out the bustling markets of old town and stopped in for a lassi in the afternoon. The markets in Varanasi are crazy. All of them spread out into an eternal maze of thin alleyways and hoards of people. You could get lost in a second in the market streets, but you are bound to end up at the ghats eventually to find your way home. We wandered around the labyrinth of markets until we found the Blue Lassi.
The Blue Lassi is a Lonely Planet recommended lassi shop that is said to make the best lassis in India. The shop has been in the same location, selling lassis for over 70 years. The grandson of the original owner still sits in the shop front whipping up homemade lassis right in front of your eyes. It is quite a process to make yoghurt, believe me. It took a little while for him to make them, but the wait was worth it when Kelsi and I had two huge bowls of food in front of us. I had a banana one and Kelsi an apple flavored. Both had huge chunks of puréed and sliced fruit in them which made them irresistible. Finding the Blue Lassi: greatest decision ever.
After our afternoon treat, it was off to the train. It was too short of a time in Varanasi, but an experience I’ll never forget. Probably my favourite city in India so far, Varanasi was a magical city to visit on the trip!

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