Varanasi, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, is the spiritual capital of India. Thousands of Hindus make a pilgrimage here to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganges River and perform funeral pujas (ceremonies). It is believed that bathing in the Ganges (the 2nd most polluted river in the world) will wash away all of one’s sins. It is also believed that placing someone’s cremated ashes or body in the river will release them from the cycle of reincarnation (called ‘moksha’), thus avoiding returning to Earth in the next life as an Indian street dog. Rituals surrounding the cremation take place along the ghats all day, every day with up to 300 bodies being burned daily at the main ‘burning ghats’. If you stop and watch for a while, you’ll see body after body go into the pyres. You can observe people burn from as close as 30 feet away in some ghats. Bodies wrapped in orange and gold shrouds are carried down to the riverbed, dipped into the river, clothing is removed minus a white gauzy wrap, and then set onto the fire.
The people in attendance are the male members of the deceased’s family. Women are not allowed down on the ghats “because they are too emotional. They get upset and cry. Sometimes they throw themselves into the fire,” I was told. Although both men and women are cremated here (but not children). They say it takes about three hours for the body to be fully cremated. Bodies and ashes are dumped into the river after each cremation, sometimes only partially burned. This ceremony, of course, is not free (nothing is free in India). Families have to pay for the wood (about 300 kilograms of it), for the workers, and for the ceremony itself. Different types of wood cost different prices, with sandalwood being the most expensive. Some families cannot afford it and just put their loved one’s whole body in the river. This is why tourists hear rumors of bodies being spotted floating down the river. We (I was in Varanasi with my friend Elizabeth and the Aussie guys I’ve been traveling with) went on two boat rides and did not see any human bodies, but we saw cow and dog corpses floating in the water. We also saw dogs eating human remains (a skull and a limb) along the ghats, as these body parts naturally wash ashore. Seeing this was one of those situations where it was both hard to watch, but also hard to look away. It is considered disrespectful to photograph the cremations and people will definitely get on you if you try, so I don’t really have any good images of the pyres.
But no worries because the best place to capture the true essence of Varanasi is at Dashashwamedh Ghat. This ghat is famous for the ceremonial “aarti,” which is held here every evening around 6:30pm. This ceremony is like a really magical, mystical, colorful church service with constantly ringing bells, drumming, chanting, fire, and someone speaking in Hindi through loudspeakers. It is described online as a “religious event” performed by young priests. It attracts an enormous crowd, both on land and by boat in the Ganges. It lasts about an hour and a half from beginning to end, but people start gathering at least an hour beforehand and often stick around to pray afterward. It’s a fantastic thing to witness, even if you’re not religious.
Aside from the Ganges and the ghats (which is definitely the #1 thing to do in Varanasi in any guidebook and any website), the city is just another loud, crazy, bustling, hustling Indian city. It’s crowded and full of traffic. There are great places to eat and shop. There are goats and dogs everywhere. There are some pretty cool temples to visit. And you can get a super cheap bicycle rickshaw ride. It’s great. We loved it.