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Published: August 8th 2011
Varanasi is a town that makes you feel like you are stepping back in time. It is possibly one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world (its history dates back to 1400 BC), and is one of the holiest places in India. Hindu pilgrims come here to wash away a lifetime of sins in the Ganges. It is a particularly auspicious place to die, as Hindus believe dying here offers moksha, or liberation from the cycle of life and death. Sick and dying Hindus will travel from all over to be cared for in the hospice centers located near the burning ghat, hoping to be cremated in the holy river.
Varanasi is incredibly disorienting, made up of a maze of alleys and twisting roads that have yet to be properly captured on any map I've seen. The ghats, or steps, line the Ganges River. Most months you can walk the length of the steps, but during monsoon season (when I was there), the water level is too high. Every day some 60,000 people go to the ghats to bathe in its holy water. Along this same 7km stretch of water there are 30 sewers dumping into the river. Water
buffalo, cows, and goats join in the bathing rituals. I obviously expected the septic river to smell horrible, but in all honestly it didn't smell so bad.
Spanning west from the ghats are the narrow alleys, providing endless hours of roaming, people watching, shopping and eating. The alleys are so narrow that cars cannot drive through, however motorcycles still insist on weaving through. Cows lazily roam the narrow alleys with the throngs of pedestrians, leaving behind them puddles and piles of excrement to tiptoe around. During the day the alleys become overstuffed with shopkeepers selling saris, silk, flowers and housewares. Tiny closet-sized shops are open to the alleyway, tended to by weathered old men hunched over their handicrafts. Many doorways are set up about a foot off the ground. Food stalls containing boiling pots of curry, tins of fresh chai tea and piles of rice and fried samosas add to the heat and smell of the city. The alleys twist and turn so many times, just when you think you've found your way, you may hit a dead end...or realize you have just made a complete circle...or encounter a never-ending line of orange-clad barefoot pilgrims chanting and carrying a
body to be cremated in the Ganges.
Then, you will make a turn in the alley maze and see a tuk tuk whiz by up ahead, and suddenly you realize that you have found the exit! The main roads of Varanasi are similar to other bustling Indian cities. Lots of buildings crammed together, shop keepers and tuk tuk drivers jostling for business, and people EVERYWHERE. I found the alleyways much more entertaining.
The thing to do in Varanasi is take a boat ride on the Ganges to see the ghats from the river. The guidebook recommended we do this in the morning, and suggested we could get the best price by bargaining straight with the boat ride. So we did this, and after some very hard bargaining got a deal within Rp 10 or so of the guidebook's recommended price. There are both row boats and outboard motor boats, both made of a simple wooden construction. We had the row boat variety, which granted a quiter more peaceful ride than the roaring diesels, but the two men rowing really earned their money! The monsoon season creates a bulging Ganges with a quick current. They rowed us up and
down the ghats so we could watch the morning rituals. Watching so many people reverently wash their bodies, brush their teeth, and pray in water that is so filthy was astonishing. In the US we are taught to be hyper-germaphobic, franticlly squirting our antibacterial hand sanitizer at the mere mention of any filth. And here, these people...many of them far in age...were soaking in basically a sewer. Does make you wonder about the true cleansing power of the Ganges...
The boat also took us to Manikarnika Ghat, the main burning ghat. Huge piles of firewood are stacked near the river, sold to families of the deceased. Wood to be sold is carefully weighed so the price of cremation can be calculated. They know exactly how much wood is needed to completly incinerate a body. When we approached the ghat a man boarded our boat to tell us the details of what happens here. He pointed out the three hospice centers, staffed by volunteers including himself, that care for the sick and dying both rich and poor. When someone dies, the bodies are handled by outcasts and carried through the alleys on a bamboo stretcher wrapped in white cloth. The
This is the main ghat where many people can be found bathing in the morning.
body is laid inside the burning wood stacks. There is a fire constantly burning, said to be started by Goddess Shiva. Women are not permitted to witness the cremations per Hindu religion, partly because they will get too upset. In the past there were incidents of women throwing themselves into the fire with their deceased husband. A male family member (husband, father, eldest son..) of the deceased will shave his head and dress in white cloth. He will use a stick to break up the burning body. When the body is incinerated, the ashes are placed into the Ganges. The male family member takes a cup of the ashes, turns his back to the river, and tosses them over his left sholder without turning back...then walks away. It is important that the family does not look back, the family must symbolically say goodbye and leave. The family will then feast for the next 10 days. They don't clean the home or move things around during this time. They light candles and say prayers, letting the spirit know that they are not welcome there anymore, praying for their journey to the afterlife.
Dozens of these cremations are done every day at
the Manikarnika Ghat. We witnessed a body being cremated while the volunteer described these traditions. It was not as dramatic as I imagined, the body is kept in the cloth so nothing can be seen. What a thing to witness on this trip!...
We were also told that some people are not cremated. Children (innocents), pregnant women (innocents inside them), and lepors are instead wrapped in white cloth, tied to a rock, and placed into the Ganges.
Another day Sean and I checked out Ramnagar Fort located across the river. We took an exhilerating tuk tuk drive over the bridge and arrived at this huge 17th century fort and palace. We were able to walk through the basement of the fort, down a dark stairway with dozens of bats flying ahead, emerging on the river side of the fort. The imposing view out to Varanasi on the other side of the Ganages was very nice. There is also an odd museum housing classic American cars, jewel-encrusted sedan cars, weapons, artwork, and an enoromous astrological clock that is still working.
The rest of our time in Varanasi was spent navigating the dizzying alleyways. Hotels do their best to
Woman performing puja (prayer) on the Ganges
point disoriented travelers toward their locations with signs painted onto the sides of buildings. We stayed at the Lonely Planet-recommended Ganga Fuji Home for Rp 400 per night. One of our nicest rooms with strong a/c (necessary in sweaty Varanasi) and clean accomodations. They had a nice rooftop restaurant with panoramic windows that offered live traditional Indian music for free every night. You could also go out on the open air patio, but were given a big stick...to ward off the monkeys.
When planning out this trip we chose Varanasi because I thought it would be a city unlike any other I would see in the world. It lived up to my expectations, and was easily one of the most fascinating cities I have ever seen.
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