Indescribable is rarely a genuine descriptor; unless you’re taking about India’s most holy of cities—Varanasi.
Nothing matches the complex and gritty fervour of this ancient metropolis, and nearly two years after our visit, its intangible essence continues to defy explanation. I thought we were prepared for Varanasi—we’d already been in the county for two months when we visited—but no amount of travel or preparation can steel a person for the raw humanity of the city were Hindus go to free themselves from the cycle of reincarnation and by extension, earthly suffering.
Roughly three million Hindu pilgrims travel to Varanasi every year—said to have been founded by the god Shiva—on a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. It’s the desire of every Hindu to die in Varanasi; many elderly or ill people spend months or even years here hoping to die there, believing they will attain moksha—release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Ghats, stone steps descending to the sacred water of the Ganges River, are awash with colour as thousands of faithful dressed in their best saris and salwar kamezes bathe in the sacred water. Entire extended families rejoice in the holy water. Plunging in, they wash their faces, cup their hands, submerge them and lift them up letting the water fall back into the river amid other devotees, chemical foam and floating debris. Widows cloaked in white crowd the river’s edge.
It’s believed bathing in Mother Ganges, as the river is affectionately known, washes sin away, laying the groundwork for a fruitful afterlife. Many pilgrims fill cans, bottles, and other containers for relatives unable to make the journey.
Some may reach the afterlife sooner rather than later by bathing in the river. Roughly three billion litres of raw sewage pours into the Ganges River every day, along with domestic waste and industrial effluent. Hepatitis, typhoid, cholera, amoebic dysentery and skin afflictions are among the water borne diseases.
But the faithful are undeterred—not even the bloated bodies of cows and goats floating by disrupts the ritual. Hotel linens are also washed in the river, we learn, causing us to question sanitation at our own hotel.
Adding to the confusion, noise, pollution and crowds of the city are the bulls; believed to embody the soul of Lord Shiva, they’re given the freedom to roam Varanasi. Generally oblivious to the teeming humanity around them, spooked bulls occasional transform into bovine missiles that threaten life and limb— a lesson I learned after a narrowly avoiding a trampling while waiting in line at a temple. My backpack was slashed by its horns, but I escaped unscathed.
Bulls are joined by scores of Holy Cows, all of whom leave a trail of steaming manure behind as they traverse the city. Word to the wise, leave the flip-flops behind unless you want it oozing up between your toes. Even after manure is collected, the film left behind is a buffet for flies and other insects. Despite this the animals are revered and it is considered an honour if one enters your home. Many people leave food for them and some bulls make the same rounds every day in search of generous vitals.
Bearded, saffron cloaked holy men, known as Sadhus, sit on the ghats. Fake holy men also haunt the ghats, demanding outrageous amounts of money from tourists who ask for a photo— not what one would expect from someone who’s renounced the material world and embraced austerity.
Two ghats are exclusively for cremation and funeral pyres there burn twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, shrouding the river and city in a smoky haze. Ash from the burning bodies falls on those nearby.
The whole process takes mountains of wood, weighed out and priced with giant scales. According to the United Nations, 400-500 kilograms of wood is needed to cremate one body. Many poor simply can’t afford the expense and despite laws prohibiting it, some un-cremated bodies are thrown directly into the Ganges River.
As we take in the city, we quickly learn that the sound of ringing bells signals a funeral procession; bodies swathed in white being paraded through the streets on the way to the Ganges. Life and death, constant companions, mingle on the streets.
Death in the Western world in now so hidden, bodies beautified for viewing, or cremated out of sight. Laying out a person' s body was once something that anyone might do in a lifetime, a final gesture of care and love. I can still remember my grandmother telling me about doing it twice, after suffering the loss of her two children. In India, death is a public affair.
On our second day there, a local man signals us to sit with him beside a pyre. It's perfectly acceptable to watch a cremation and many people do, but out of respect for families, photography is prohibited.
We watch as the body is removed from the stretcher, dipped in the holy water of the Ganges River to wash away sins and placed on the pyre. Spices, ghee and sandalwood chips are poured on the deceased with care as family members and relatives walk around the body three times. It’s the final goodbye.
Traditionally, women don’t attend cremation ceremonies, this is beginning to change however. The man explains that the fire is lit by the oldest son or closest male relative. I look away as the body begins to burn. Later, after the fire is out, the ashes and bones are raked up and thrown in the river
Before leaving, we're asked for a donation for families who can’t afford wood for cremation, one of the many requests for money we receive during our stay in Varanasi. Others follow us with unsolicited explanations of cremation rituals—then try to demand money for their time. Every time we walk down street or sit, a “friendly” stranger strikes up a conversation. It seems that everyone and their uncle have a silk shop and a special price just for us. There’s also the moms who need you to go to the store and buy milk for their babies at an inflated price where they later return it for a refund.
But we don't let it get under our skin; it’s all part of experiencing a city struggling to balance tourism, poverty, religion and pilgrims.
Spiritual practices don’t end with the daylight. Dusk brings the Aarti Fire Ceremony at the main ghats along the Ganges River, a riveting religious devotion of fire, flowers, priests, various idols, loudspeakers, incense, bells, chanting—and immense crowds. Fire is the connection between this world and the spirit world and is offered to Lord Shiva and the Ganges River via candle lamps circled around by Pandits or Hindu priests.
Along with thousands of others, we place candles lodged inside bowls with flowers and leaves into Mother Ganges. The river sparkles like the starry night sky.
No one leaves Varanasi unchanged and I’m no exception—even if it’s impossible to articulate exactly how.