Exploring the Ghats & Alleyways of Varanasi

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January 12th 2020
Published: January 12th 2020
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Over the past two days we've had three walking tours with Varanasi Walks, The Far North and Northern Bazaars and Hidden Alleyways, on Thursday and Death and Rebirth in Banares on Friday. Our guide Anmet, suggested we change the itinerary a little on Thursday and not spend all day in the northern part of Varanasi as the two tour areas overlap somewhat. We went with his recommendation of spending the morning in the north and the afternoon exploring around the very southern part of Varanasi, where we're staying.

Anmet took us to places we wouldn't have found on our own, and over filled our heads with spiritual history and folklore we'll never remember.

We visited the only mosque on the ghats, Alamgir Mosque, which occupies the spot where a Vishnu Temple once stood. The temple was originally destroyed by Aurangzeb, son of Shah Jahan, who had the mosque erected in it's place. This imposing structure dominates Panchganga Ghat.

We paid our R50 each to climb another set of steep stone steps to the roof where we watched a couple of local men fly their homing pigeons. It was interesting to see, the birds were controlled by shouts. Two flocks merged and were then called home by their owners. The birds broke into two groups again, a couple of them getting confused and not flying with their flock. These may end up in the wrong flock, a gain for the owners of those birds but they may lose a couple to another flock next time. Win some, lose some...

We visited a few different temples, Anmet continuing our history lesson at each one. Of the most interest to us were quick visits to a couple of tiny one or two man factories - silk looms making beautiful saris, hand embroidery of fabric and badges, screen printing on vibrant lengths of sari fabric and sequin/bead detail being hand sewn onto fabric stretched on a frame. All done by men in tiny, ancient, dark rooms with inadequate lighting.

We visited Lolark Kund, also known as Lord Sun's Pond, on Tulsa Ghat, just three ghats down from Assi Ghat. I had this place in the itinerary but wasn't sure if I'd be able to find it. Couples bathe here with the hope of conceiving. After bathing they leave the wet clothes behind and pledge to give up one vegetable for life. That vegetable is left in the kund water, as an offering and a show of gratitude towards Lord Sun.

Amnet also took us to an Ashram, Mumukshu Bhawan, which is three minutes walk from Assi Ghat. It's surrounded by high walls, and a sanctuary from the noise and chaos in the streets outside. He explained life choices made by the elderly male inhabitants, and how they have completely denounced family and possessions. They now live out their lives in very basic conditions but at peace with themselves as they prepare to end their lives in Varanasi, thus ending the cycle of life and death and attaining salvation.

We enjoyed the the hours we spent walking the alleyways with him over the past two days. He left us at lunchtime Friday, sitting on the steps of Karnataka Ghat, with the burning Ghat of Harashchandra behind us. He explained to us the rituals involved in the cremation process, though we were unaware at the time that we were about to witness up close, the confronting reality of death and cremation in Varanasi, for ourselves.

The Manikarnika and Harishchandra Ghats are the two cremation ghats in Varanasi. When I was here in 2013, I hired a boat and visited Manikarnika Ghat, the main cremation ghat. Harishchandra Ghat was simply a muddy area on the banks of the Ganges , littered with the residual of cremations such as the gold and red fabric used to wrap bodies and the bamboo ladder like stretchers used to carry them.

Now it's much busier and has grown in size, but still littered with fabric, bamboo stretchers and rubbish. A huge, ugly electric crematorium dominates the Ghat. Several high concrete viewing areas with railings now exist, overlooking the area along the foreshore of the Ganges River where the open fire cremations are held. Three steel U shaped frames with legs stand in a row in the centre of the Ghat, cremation frames for those who can't afford to purchase wood. It's busy, with lots of men standing around, female relatives of the deceased aren't allowed here. There were six fires burning as we walked onto the viewing area, the air filled with ash and smoke.

Two of the fires had bodies burning in them, the others were almost burnt out. The body of a woman, who had passed away only hours before, was wrapped in red and gold fabric and lying on a bamboo stretcher in the shallows, surrounded by male relatives. She was covered in flowers and the cremation rituals were underway. Nearby a metre high pyre made from timber had been constructed for her cremation.

The flowers were removed from her body and dropped in a pile on the ground. Goats and a lone cow appeared and started to feast on them. Eventually she was placed on top of the pyre and more timber arranged over the top of her body. The rituals continued, the chief mourner who was dressed in white, circled the pyre five times, and water, taken from the Ganges in cupped hands, was poured over her mouth, also done five times. Eventually she was prepared for cremation, sandalwood shavings were spread over her body, which was then anointed with ghee, a clarified butter. Boxes of incense sticks were opened and the sticks placed around and on top of her body. The chief mourner started the fire with a handful of straw lit from the eternal flame, a fire on the Ghat which is never extinguished. As the flames took hold and the air filled with smoke from her pyre, we left, not wanting to watch her burn.

What amazed us was how accepting everyone is of the burning Ghat and what happens here. Two boys flying kites ran through, dodging around the fires, without a thought as to what was burning there. A street dog snatched a piece of burning flesh from a pyre and ate it, goats and cows ate the flowers, and a dog fight broke out at the edge of the water, and no one bat an eyelid. A young man with a metal bucket and tongs collects blackened bones from the ashes of dying fires, men with long bamboo poles poke and jab at burning bodies and rearrange the burning timbers, making sure they burn completely.

For me it was a confronting and disturbing experience. It made me consider my own mortality, knowing that one day I too will leave this Earth, and be reduced to ashes in a ceremony very different to what I just witnessed. But, in another way, very much the same. There are several photos of this cremation at the very end of the photos included with this blog, which some people may find disturbing. Your choice as to weather you view them or not.

Our second evening in Varanasi we spent on Assi Ghat near our hotel. The Aarti Ceremony is held here at sunset everyday, something that wasn't happening in 2013. The following evening, again on sunset, we walked along the ghats to Dashashwamedh Ghat, the most spectacular and main ghat in Varanasi, where Aarti has always been held, and watched the ceremony there as well.

The Aarti is a ritual that dispels darkness by offering fire to the Goddess of the Ganges, and has a deeply symbolic value to Hindus. Hinduism is a religion of intricate and highly symbolic rituals. Necessities for an Aarti ceremony include water, flowers, lamps, fire, incense, bells and drums.

Of the two ceremonies, Assi Ghat was smaller, less crowded and more enjoyable. Dashashwameth Ghat is a major tourist draw card. The river was choked with boats of spectators, hawkers and beggars are rife and it's hard to get a decent view of the ceremony.

We have a private transfer to the airport at lunchtime on Saturday, and get picked up just after midday, for the hour long drive. Thankfully our flight is only delayed by half an hour. Ten minutes before our scheduled departure time and we're still sitting in the lounge waiting for a gate number to be given. It didn't appear on the departure screen, instead a man stands at the top of the steps and shouts at everyone. We didn't hear it, thankfully people we were chatting with who were on the same flight, did. Next stop - Delhi.

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