Each year thousands if not millions of Hindu pilgrims make their way to the Holy City of Varanasi for the envious privilege of bathing in the sacred waters of the Ganges river to purify their souls. The iconic ghats (steps) along the Ganges river are some of the most photographed in India.
Having ogled over so many pictures of Varanasi it was one of the cities I was most looking forward to visiting. I was fascinated by its history – dating back to the 11th century – making it one of the oldest cities in India (which, in turn, is one of the oldest cultures in the world). I was mesmerized by the Ganges – a lifeline used for everything from transportation to bathing to daily chores to cremation. I couldn’t believe I was finally there! I expected to be blown away and instantly enchanted by this mystical city but it was a bit of a let down.
I’m not sure why.
Maybe because it was near the end of our trip so we were fed up of the touts (the worst one was in Varanasi) and the cow dung (the narrow alleyways making it very difficult to avoid). Maybe it was because I thought the Holy City would be acceptably clean (sadly, the sacred Ganges is filthy). Or maybe Varanasi just didn’t live up to all the hype. But, I can say without a doubt that Varanasi is one of those places that has to be seen at least once because there really is no other place like it anywhere else in the world. Varanasi is its own entity within an already very complex country. It’s a place of extreme extremes; it’s a photographer’s dream and a germophobe’s nightmare (actually that would apply to most of India).
MANIKARNIKA – THE BURNING GHAT
Varanasi is mostly known for its burning ghats (or cremation grounds) – the most popular being Manikarnika. Devoted Hindus believe that being cremated in the Holy City is the ultimate release into the much-anticipated state of nirvana. Varanasi is where life returns to ashes. Cremating the dead by the Ganges river has been going on for centuries and this peculiar ritual attracts curious visitors such as myself each year.
I can’t say I was bothered by the dead bodies, some barely wrapped in disheveled shrouds, others lovingly enveloped in fancier cloths the color of spices with garlands of marigold around their necks. Nor was I bothered by the cremation process itself but what I did find disturbing was how the dead were handled. After the bodies were immersed in the sacred Ganges, they were then carelessly (or so it seemed) piled one on top of the other – like a proper assembly line – awaiting to be cremated. I understand that hundreds of bodies are cremated every day but I thought (with my Westernized concept of death) they would be handled with more respect. Or maybe it wasn’t considered disrespectful; from what I understood the cremation process is just a means to get to their final destination, divine nirvana, which holds, I’m guessing, more importance than death itself.
In this surreal context, it wasn’t unusual to see charred arms or legs or feet left hanging, crisp and frail, completely disconnected from the bodies to eventually turn to ashes on their own. Lots of hungry, salivating emaciated stray dogs lurked around the cremation grounds sniffing around for left over bones, human bones that were now relieved of all life and significance.
The piles of wood near the burning ghats are used for the cremations but not all the wood is of equal quality. Hindus with better means can afford the most expensive sandalwood; the other cheaper wood is for those with lesser means. Another interesting ritual is that the bodies are carried on a concocted wooden stretcher of sorts by Dalits for the last mile and only male members of the family are permitted to accompany the defunct, chanting as they make their way to the burning ghats; it’s believed that women’s cries are too loud and can potentially disturb the dead family member’s journey to nirvana.
DASHASHWAMEDH GHAT PUJA CEREMONY
A more appeasing experience was the puja (fire) ceremony held every night at the Dashashwamedh Ghat. The ceremony accompanied by chanting is a dedication to Lord Shiva, the Ganges river, the sun and fire – ultimately the whole universe. It lasts about an hour – just enough time to give you a bit of a spiritual boost or to give you an up close look at how much religion is ingrained in India’s society.
Hindus and foreigners alike – everybody is welcome to assist the ceremony. Bowls are passed around to collect donations but it’s entirely up to you if you want to donate or not. It was somewhat of a surreal experience sitting there by Mother Ganga witnessing this centuries-old ritual which still takes place every night.
SADHUS – THE HOLY MEN OF INDIA
If you’ve never heard of those with painted faces called Sadhus then let me be the first to introduce you to the holy men (and some women) of India. Just like India, explaining Sadhus can be complex but, in short, they’re Hindus (usually yogis but not all) who renounced all worldly possessions and desires dedicating their entire lives to achieving moksha (liberation).
Sadhus, being holy men, rely on fellow Hindus’ kindness and goodwill for everyday necessities such as food. They willingly choose to live in temples or on the streets – anywhere but in a conventional house. True-to-the-bone Sadhus do not resort to begging but posers do tend to crop up taking advantage of well-to-do tourists (beware). There are different sects of Sadhus some of which choose to live completely naked (as the picture below clearly shows – you’ve been warned). Another characteristic in identifying Sadhus is that they cover their bodies with ashes from the cremation ground – a symbol of having detached themselves fully from the present world. Many Sadhus, but not all, believe that smoking cannabis brings them closer to Shiva, their god of choice. Though cannabis is illegal in India, they are exempt as this is part of their religious rituals.
This picture cost 100 rupees (about $2); I don’t normally succumb to such “scams” but I couldn’t resist this one! This Sadhu had his own little enterprise passing out business cards to passersby. He would wiggle his….uhm….bell to attract tourists and as soon as a camera would appear, he would cover himself up. If you’re willing to pay his asking price then you could take as many pictures as you like including some standing next to him.
In the picture below, this svelte Sadhu sitting in the lotus position didn’t even bother to look up when I took his picture. He seemed much less concerned with tourists and much more interested in his spiritual reading.
DIVINE STREET ART
While wandering along the ghats, I noticed some divine (both literally and figuratively) street art depicting beautifully detailed deities and other characters randomly painted on the walls. I wonder what the walls would say if they could talk?
After my short time in Varanasi, I can’t straight out say I didn’t like it. I enjoyed strolling along the ghats, getting lost in the labyrinth of narrow alleyways and seeing everyday life focused around the Ganges. But I really wanted to fall under Varanasi’s rumored hypnotic vibe and that just didn’t happen. Which isn’t to say I wasn’t effected by my experience at the cremation ghats where I was left perplexed by the contradiction of so much death surrounded by so much life. Or that I wasn’t moved by the puja cermony where I was fascinated by such deep, raw devotion.
I think Varanasi is one of those cities travelers either love or hate. We met both. I’m somewhere in the middle. And maybe, in its own cunning way and unbeknownst to me, that’s exactly where Varanasi wants to keep me.
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Have you been to Varanasi? What are your thoughts on this Holy City?