I wouldn’t know where to start the story about Varanasi, this sacred city of India, an enigma for the outsiders, hard to understand. Here, death is present at every corner of every street. And for a weird reason, after a few days, you get used to it and accept it as part of your life. Varanasi is a town of contrasts, with life going on as usual on one side, and with flames taking over dead bodies on the other.
I still don’t know how I feel about Varanasi. I was shocked, impressed and also fascinated by it. And it’s hard to put down in the words what my eyes have seen. But I’ll try….
The train to Varanasi was about 2 hours late because of the fog, and the temperature was dropping down fast. Our guide went to search for a place to wait, somewhere inside, while we waited on the rats infested platform. They were everywhere: between the tracks, on the metal structures above our heads, under the stairs, even between our backpacks. We were happy when we found a waiting room on the other side of the train station. It was so cold that instead of waiting for the chai boy to come to us, we went searching for him. One thing that you can drink and be sure you won’t get sick in India is the masala chai, this delicious spiced flavoursome hot warming liquid, which is a true treat in the cold, cold winter days.
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Our train finally arrived and I jumped straight into bed. I was very tired and the journey ahead was very long. We arrived in Varanasi at around 5am and the tuk tuks were waiting to take us to our hotel. Even if still very early and dark outside, the city was full of life.
The hotel was pretty modern and the bed was very big. All I wanted though was to lie down and sleep a little bit more. The noise from the traffic outside kept me awake for a while. I kept imagining the street would close and no vehicle would be allowed to cross, that’s how tired I was. When I finally woke up I noticed that the shower was perfect: how water and pressure! That is a rare thing in India. The bathtub had a hole in the middle but that didn’t count, there was hot water I could just forget myself under it. What a treat!
I didn’t know what to expect from Varanasi. Before arriving I have read the guidebook and I have also heard the tales. My friend Sandeep was saying that most of the girl travelers hated it. But I was intrigued of all the stories I read before the trip. I refused to arrive with the idea that I was going to hate it but I was also afraid of what I was about to see. I am one of those people that avoid death. I don’t think about it, I don’t go to funerals, I can never know how to react when our paths come across.
So when, for the first time, I’ve seen a group of people carrying a corpse towards the river, I almost freaked out. Varanasi is a sacred city because of the river Gange that passes through. Some people, when they feel that they have only a few days to live, travel all the way to Varanasi so that they can die here and their body can be burned on the shore of the Gange. This is why I don’t exaggerate when I say that every 15 minutes there are people carrying bodies to the river. In fact, the statistics say that every day, over 80 people are burned on the shore of the Gange.
However, the first thing we visited on our first day was the University of Varanasi.
Banaras Hindu University is one of the largest residential universities in the whole of Asia, with over 20.000 students, and it was established in 1916 by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, a lawyer and Indian independence activist. It is organised into 16 faculties with more than 132 departments. Students from 34 different nationalities are studying at the University of Varanasi.
Besides the impressive number of students learning here, the University also has an impressive temple complex, Shri Vishwanath Mandir, where the young adults come and pray. As at every temple in India, we had to take our shoes off and pay a few rupees so that someone “looks after” them. Then we passed through water, to clean our feet and only then we were allowed to enter the complex. Besides the religious purposes, I was impressed of what I’ve seen around the temples. The student life seem to be the same as in a Western campus: students were walking around, they were chatting in groups, some were playing the guitar. It felt so natural and in the same time it was so fascinating!
Our second visit of the day was at the Monkey Temple from Varanasi, Durga Kund Mandir. We were not allowed to have our cameras inside, so all our possessions had to be left in a dodgy looking locker, outside. We walked on an alley, all the way to the temples. The area was very dirty and smelt badly, while the monkeys were running around everywhere. At some point, I’ve seen a half-naked man, looking like a priest, preparing to come out of the temple we were looking at. All of a sudden, lots of people appeared out of nowhere and told us to get away. The man came out and went to another temple and everybody followed him. A huge queue formed, while people starting to sing and chant some sort of a mantra.
We were tired after the University visit so we found a relatively not so dirty spot and just sat down. I think all the early waking up every day and the speed of the trip was catching up with us.
The last visit of the day was at the Bharat Mata Temple, a giant map of undivided India, carved in marble. There are no signs anywhere so I can’t really tell you more about this quite strange temple.
We went round the map of India and outside we saw our tuk tuk drivers fighting with some other tuk tuk drivers. They were fighting in Hindi so I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but the tone of their voice was very aggressive. It was very uncomfortable for us. But what was even more uncomfortable was the cruel use of animals for money. I’ve seen one of the “keepers” hitting a poor monkey that was kept on a very tight leash, and the same person pushing down some cobras in a very narrow box. Simply heart-breaking, especially knowing that there is nothing I could do for those poor animals.
We went back to the hotel for a short rest and to prepare for our visit to the ghats: the most sacred place in Varanasi.
There are 87 ghats in Varanasi, but only a few are used as cremation sites. Most of them are used only for bathing, washing clothes or puja ceremonies – rituals of worshiping the deities.
Our guide had a surprise and arranged for us to go to the ghats by rickshaw – a bicycle carriage human-powered. It was a fun ride, through the massive crowds of people, through the intense traffic and then onward through the narrow maze of streets behind the walls of Varanasi.
Once arrived at the one of the ghats, we stopped taking pictures. Because of all the funerals taking place on the shore of the river, taking pictures is a very sensitive subject and it offends the members of the family. You can watch but you can’t take pictures.
Our guide took us to the funeral spot from the south part of the wall and we watched how a body was prepared to be burned. The body was lying down on a bed of wood, wrapped in a white sheet. There were orange flowers surrounding it.
Wikipedia explains very well the ritual of cremation: “The last rites are usually completed within a day of death. His or her body is washed, wrapped in white cloth if the dead is a man or a widow (red if her husband is still alive), the two toes tied together with a string, a Tilak (red mark) placed on the forehead. The dead adult’s body is carried to the cremation ground near a river or water, by family and friends, and placed on a pyre with feet facing south. The eldest son, or a male mourner, or a priest then bathes before leading the cremation ceremonial function. He circumambulates the dry wood pyre with the body, says a eulogy or recites a hymn in some cases, places sesame seed in the dead person’s mouth, sprinkles the body and the pyre with ghee (clarified butter), then draws three lines signifying Yama (deity of the dead), Kala (time, deity of cremation) and the dead.The pyre is then set ablaze, while the mourner’s mourn. The ash from the cremation is consecrated to the nearest river or sea.After the cremation, in some regions, the immediate male relatives of the deceased shave their head and invite all friends and relatives, on the tenth or twelfth day, to eat a simple meal together in remembrance of the deceased. This day, in some communities, also marks a day when the poor and needy are offered food in memory of the dead.”
We stayed until they added the incense sticks to the wooden bed. We decided that it’s too much for us to see them lightning it and see how the body burns. The atmosphere was already very heavy and the smell unbearable. While we were there, two other bodies arrived in the same spot and other people were preparing other beds for them.
My first coming across of Varanasi and the death ritual was while I was in Vietnam. I remember booking a tour in the Mekong Delta and I was the only one in the group staying in a hotel overnight (not because I wouldn’t have loved to be in a home stay but because there were no spaces for a solo traveler anywhere else). I couldn’t sleep so I turned on the TV, and the only English channel available was Discovery, which was showing a documentary about different death rituals in the world. I remember how shocked I was seeing the whole process, starting with the death of the person and the burning, a few hours later.
We walked past the burning bodies and headed down the stairs, where a boat was waiting for us. We jumped in carefully, made sure that we had all the needed for the flower ceremony and got pushed into the waters of the Gange. We were supposed to see the sunset but because of the fog and cloudy weather, the sky went from grey to black – without passing through the gorgeous reds, oranges and yellows of a clear end of the day.
The flower ceremony, or Ganga Aarti, symbolises five elements: space, wind, fire, water and earth and the purpose of doing it is to show the deities your humility and gratitude. And because Varanasi is a very spiritual city, we did it twice: in the evening and in the morning.
The boat slid gently on the calm waters of the river. It was already dark, and the walls of Varanasi were illuminated by orange, warm lights. The image of death seemed to be forgotten, there, in the middle of the river. It was all calm and peaceful. We got our candles lit, and gently put them on the water, watching how they were floating further and further away from us. We made a wish.
Then we went further and stopped to see a show, from the water. There were a lot of boats anchored one near the other, and children with pots of chai were passing through. And as we never refused a good cup of chai, we bought one each, to warm our hands and our souls.
In front of us, on the some steps coming down from the wall, priest were dancing and chanting, performing the “Angy Pooja” (Worship of Fire). The performance includes the use of fire.
Back on the shore, we made our way out of the street maze and head over to a restaurant for dinner. The food was again, delicious! I ordered a mix plate of curry, rice and vegetables grill. I even had space for dessert, and chose the delicious gulab jamun, a sweet dough ball floating inside warm cardamom syrup.
On the way back to the hotel a group of children and women approached us, begging for money. This time they were very aggressive, they even put their hands inside my pockets. There were beggars in other places too but not as insistent as here; they would usually leave us alone when we said “no”.
But finally we got back to the hotel and off the sleep, after a very long day! In the morning we had to wake up early again!