Varanasi holds an enchanting collection of temples and is believed to be the oldest living city in the world as per ancient Hindu mythology. The city is on the backs of the Ganga River a.k.a. “The Mother Ganga” in northern India. A major religious hub in India, it is the holiest of cities in Hinduism and Jainism.
Many Hindus believed that dying in Varanasi brings salvation/nirvana and so they make the trip to the city when they realize that they are close to death. They burn corpses in plain view just beside the river on the ghats (steps). The River Ganga is a backdrop out of a movie with centuries of old temples and the scene of pilgrims doing their devotions in the river at sunrise every morning.
Varanasi is not a city filled with tourist destinations, it’s an authentic Indian experience watching the spectacle of life and death on the river and meandering through the alleys of the old city in the scorching afternoon heat. If you want to see true Indian culture, Varanasi is the city you must visit.
While the use for of ghats for cremation is well known, they are also used to give last rites to those who do not need any cleansing by fire to purify the soul, including young children and pregnant women. Instead, their bodies are wrapped in cloth, weighted with stones and eased into the Ganga. However, it’s fairly common for the ropes to give way and bodies to bob to the surface. It may be best to skip a boat ride if you’re not ready for this squeamish sight. They also put the carcasses of cows because they are a sacred animal in Hinduism. My friend went for a sunrise boat ride only to be surprised that the giant grey rock she saw was actually the body of the beloved animal.
They have ghats all down the river bank and they are all used for different purposes, not just for cremation. A few we were able to identify were ones for bathing, doing laundry, playing cricket, night ceremonies and swimming.
It was alarming to hear that although they have pollution levels of the water posted on the ghats, people still swim and bathe in the river. Their love and belief in the purification from Mother Ganga was much stronger than their concern for disease.
I was told that the #3 reason for death was from a disease related to dead bodies and swimming in the river, but everyone was all smiles jumping and diving from old buildings without a care in the world.
Here’s my beautiful Spanish friend and I on the weekend ceremony ghats. We learned this day that the bindi in our hairline meant we were taken or married..woops. It definitely helped us with unwanted attention, which was nice, so we kept doing it.
Here’s a little cricket match on the ghats we watched one evening.
Varanasi was truly a remarkable experience and eye opening from a cultural stance. It was so beautiful to be able to go there and feel true India. Often times you can get stuck along the tourist route that hides a country’s real personality and uniqueness. Varanasi shares with you the mystery that lies behind Indians eyes. Now I know why they have those smoldering sultry gazes….they are filled with the magic of the Ganga.