Arriving in Varanasi delivered the India I always imagined. Sights, smells, colours and a culture so intensely different to my own. Varanasi is India’s spiritual heart and many locals would argue that it is the oldest and holiest place on earth. This city is not for the squeamish or faint of heart, but if you have it in you, the experience is rich.
The River Ganges
Set amongst the River Ganges, I felt as if I had stepped back in time. The streets are filled with cows, dogs, monkeys, holy men, poo and praying. The river is so polluted that it has litres and litres of sewage pumped into it before it even reaches Varanasi. Once flowing through the city, it is then filled with dead bodies and animals, more sewage, trash, and who knows what else. Despite this, it is regarded as sacred, holy and ‘pure’. Locals will bathe, swim and drink these waters with no hesitation. A dead dog floating by is no bother to them.
Millions of Hindus pilgrimage here with the belief that death in Varanasi will relieve them from the cycle of reincarnation and that with their remains put into the river (Mother Ganga), they will go on to Nirvana.
Set along the banks of the river are the Ghats (sections of steps down towards the water). I believe there are almost 100 in total and each one with its own use. Some are for bathing, some are for laundry, some for ceremonies, some are even as specific as relieving you from a certain disease or illness. And then there are two ‘burning’ ghats, exclusively used for cremations. An amazing way to take in the main ghats in all their glory is from the water. We hired a boatman to take us along the river at sunrise, and it was one of the most magical and significant travel experiences I’ve ever had.
The cremations by the river are taking place 24 hours a day 7 days a week. That means since you were born, and as you read this, bodies are constantly being cremated on the River Ganges. They are cremated within hours of death. This is for two reasons; firstly, because India is a very hot country and they simply don’t have the facilities or the space to store bodies hygienically. Secondly, because Hindus believe that the cremation needs to happen soon after death to allow the soul to leave the body.
This part I found so fascinating. This is the information a local man named Kalesh, who works at the burning ghats told me. As he put it ‘burning is learning’. Yikes.
Firstly, the body is covered in ‘Ghee’ a type of fat/butter which helps the body to burn. It is then wrapped in a white sheet, and depending on the family, they will drape additional fabrics and flowers etc. The body is then carried through the streets down towards the river on a make-shift bamboo stretcher (if you hear bells approaching from behind you, this is probably why). Once down at the river, they will dunk the body into the water to purify the soul. They also pour water into the mouth of the corpse.
After this, the body is put on a pile of wood chosen by the family whilst the most dominant male of the family (normally the eldest son) will go off and shave his head and dress in white robes. He will then light some branches from a fire at the bottom of the adjacent temple (a fire that has been consistently burning for thousands of years). He will come back to the body with the lit branches, walk around it 5 times to represent the elements of fire, earth, air, water and spirit – “Without fire, how would we eat? without earth, where would we stand? Without water, what would we drink? Without air, what would we breathe? And without spirit, how would we speak and connect?” – Kalesh.
The body is lit and will then take roughly 3 hours to fully cremate. Women are not allowed at the burning ghats of fear that they will cry, making it harder for the soul to leave the body. Despite this though, it is referred to as the ‘happy ceremony’.
In particular circumstances, some bodies are not cremated. If you were a child under the age of 9, if you were a pregnant woman, if you died by snake bite, if you were a holy man (Sadhu), if you had leprosy or the measles (there were a couple more that I can’t remember). In these cases, you are not burnt as you are considered to already be pure. Instead, the body is tied to a large stone, taken out on a boat, and dropped into the middle of the river.
After the body is fully cremated, the family will return to collect some ashes to put into the river. The remaining ashes are collected and put into one big pile where the men who work at the cremations will sort through to find the jewellery from the bodies. This jewellery is then either worn or sold to pay for wood for the families who can’t afford it. (I seriously can’t imagine wearing this jewellery!)
There is now a minimum weight of wood required for each cremation, as in the past, people would not buy enough, which meant the body would not fully cremate. After some time, this became a big problem as fully intact body parts would float down the river on the regs.
A Lesson in Death
Now by this point, I would say that I’m a pretty well-seasoned traveller. I’ve witnessed extreme poverty and graphic situations. However, I’m not sure anything can quite prepare you for seeing a burning dead body for the first time.
The burning ghats of Varanasi are some of the most real, raw and confronting places I have ever been to. This is where you will come face to face with death in its most uncensored form. Towering piles of wood line the edges of the ghat, multiple fires are burning at once by the water’s edge, all with a body in each. You literally have to hop, skip and jump over bodies on the steps whilst cows nibble the flowers from their chest. Witnessing flesh melting from the bone and charred skulls, ash falling on your shoulders from the fire in front of you, fire tenders picking up fallen limbs with bamboo make-shift pincers and throwing them back on the pile. It’s not for the faint of heart.
I have never had to confront death before so face on. To be reminded in such a raw way of our mortality. However, although slightly shocking at first, the more I looked around the more I witnessed how normal this is for the people of Varanasi. Instead of tears, the men sit around smoking and laughing. Just a few feet away from the bodies are children playing and dancing with their kites. Their real and uncensored approach to death is refreshing. Death really is just as natural as living itself.
Perhaps if we were more open to death in the western world, we would be more accepting. Maybe we would be more grateful. Maybe we would feel less entitled and our troubles would feel smaller.
I am so glad that I saw what I saw. That I was able to join the people of Varanasi in celebrating life and the soul’s onwards journey rather than mourning its physical end. Varanasi is a place that will put everything into perspective.
If you can be bold, I encourage you to experience this holy city for yourself.