I watched a body burn in Varanasi. Actually, I watched about 10 bodies burn at the same time, their feet melting on one end of the wooden blanket, their skulls poking through the other. I stood in disbelief, sweat dropping down my face from my close proximity to the flames, as if I were about to roast a marshmallow at a bonfire.
Despite the man next to me describing the history of these public cremations in a serious but lighthearted tone, urging me to continue walking, I couldn’t move. I had never seen a body crumble to ashes before. India would show me many things I’d never before seen.
Varanasi wasn’t on my original itinerary, which is to say I almost didn’t see the heart of India. By heart, I mean Varanasi is beating with life, from the ceaseless, winding alleyways that make up Old Town, to the long lines of pilgrims waiting under the hot sun to enter the city’s best temples, to the bustling traffic scene rife with rickshaws, tuk tuks and the occasional elephant amongst a singing and dancing entourage en route to a wedding (check back next week for my Indian wedding experience).
Many have called Varanasi home for years – it’s one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world – but many more come here just to die.
All faithful Hindus hope Varanasi is the end of their road. If one can make the journey before his heart stops beating, to die in Varanasi is to be set on the path to enlightenment, because to die in the holiest city in India means your body will be cremated with flames from the eternal fire, and tossed into the almighty Ganges, left to float away from your struggles and sins in this life, and sink into the unknown of the next.
Where I stood at Manikarnika, the largest of the two popular burning sites, there is a constant rotation of bodies. Each is allotted up to three hours, assuming the families purchased enough special wood (a variety that doesn’t smell, with sandalwood being at the top of the price list) to finish the job. Many more bodies are lined up on bamboo stretchers covered in shiny gold cloth and bright pink bows, awaiting one of the coveted open fires after being paraded through the city – death is not a crying matter in the East; it’s a cause for celebration.
And that is what the rest of the living seem to do along the famous riverside of Varanasi, a long stretch connecting nearly 80 ghats where people of all walks of life converge, though whether they’re celebrating life or the coming of death, one cannot know, for many look toward what us Westerners view as the end with enough vigor to match our unease.
There are those who come to relax, meet with friends and enjoy a cup of chai.
And others, like me, made the journey directly from the Maha Kumbh Mela festival (the world’s largest religious gathering). For those faithful pilgrims, it’s ceremonial to follow your bath in the Ganges at Allahabad with a gift of offerings at a particular temple in Varanasi. And, while you’re here, why not bathe again, and then take a scenic boat tour?
At one of the ghats, two foreigners had constructed a makeshift portrait studio (you can do anything you want here, it seems), and many picturesque sadhus happily posed. I took advantage of the brilliant idea.
At sunset, the ganga aarti, takes place along the Dasaswamedh Ghat with a beautiful, choreographed ritual of respect to the Gods.
Varanasi turned out to be my favorite place in India, with it’s vibrant displays of both life and death. There are many Indians who would happily trade places with those already set free. Life for many is difficult, and the promise of a better one next time around is enticing, but one must not take the easy way out. Committing suicide (and murder) ensures an exemption from enlightenment. So, for those who spend their lives praying their hearts will stop beating, there’s nothing to do but wait.
Have you been to India? What was your favorite part/place/city? I love comments!
- A Conversation with the Undertaker at the Burning Ghats of Varanasi, India (ibtimes.com)
- Lonely Planet review for ghats (lonelyplanet.com)
- The Burning Ghats of Varanasi (moissecooper.blogspot.com)
Life & Death Along the Ghats of Varanasi, India