After a 12h bus ride from Agra, I arrived in Varanasi, one of the cities that I wanted to see most in India, early in the morning.
It seemed as messy, dirty, dusty and noisy as any other city that I’ve been to in India, and the traffic was just as chaotic, with motorbikes, rick-shaws, tuk-tuks, cars, a lot of cows, pigs and even monkeys using the roads.
The city, considered one of the oldest in the world, was founded approximately 3000 years ago, and attracts people from all over, especially Hindus. They believe that Varanasi is the holiest place on Earth and was founded by Shiva (the Creation and Destroyer God), not by humans. Varanasi is located near (17 km away) the site where Buddha gave his first discourse and Buddhism was created.
I came to Varanasi because I wanted to experience one of the main religious sites in the world and see the Sadhus, or holy men. They are revered as the gods’ representatives on Earth. Finally, I came to Varanasi to attend a 10-day meditation course.
The Unusual and Unexpected Welcoming
At the bus station, I negotiated a fare with a tuk-tuk driver who barely spoke English and seemed a bit drunk. He said that he knew the location of my hotel, but then had to pick up someone on the way to show him where it was. After around 20min, we stopped in front of a hospital… I was confused but he confirmed that the hotel was located behind the hospital and we had to go around. Before I could say anything, he grabbed my suitcase and headed off, but a bystander suggested we take another road that would get us closer to the entrance of the hotel. As we walked down an alley that had raw sewage coming from the ground. I have to admit, I felt unsure about the kind of a hotel that would be located on such a street…
But as we came around a corner, I heard a mixture of crying, humming and singing and I saw several sari-clad women sitting on the ground, with other people standing behind them, all gathered around a dead body.
I took a closer look and saw that they were covering the body of an old woman with glittering golden cloths and wrapping it in robes on a bamboo hand-barrow.
A woman squatting on the ground seemed to be crying and singing simultaneously and was being comforted by another woman, while the people standing were all staring at the dead body. And I was transfixed, frozen in the middle of the alley with astonishment.
To think that if we had not changed our route, I would have come face to face with a dead body in my first hour in Varanasi.
And it was only 7.45 AM! Because I could only check-in at 11:00 AM, I dropped off my luggage and decided to go back to watch more of the extraordinary funeral.
By now, the woman had stopped crying, and a man wearing a white shirt was on his phone, while a teenage boy stumbled from one house to another with a clay pot he had to fill with water.
I found the scene quite surreal, and a bit sad and depressing, to be honest – the people squatting on the ground surrounding the corpse, with sewage running between them.
I stayed a little longer, just observing, and when they picked up the body, the woman started crying heartrendingly again, while another threw the clay pot with water on the ground.
The people carrying the body were chanting, saying “God is the truth” in Hindi, while a man was throwing puffed rice on the body.
They left on a march to the Ganges River, where the burning ceremony would take place, and while passing, some made religious signs with their hands.
I decided to go back to the hotel because I was feeling a bit intrusive, like a typical Western tourist chasing them with a camera. Plus, I was very tired and starving, and really needed to eat something.
The Ganges River
After having breakfast and catching up with my emails, I decided to go for a walk on the riverbank.
The Ganges River, which flows through India and Bangladesh, is worshiped as the goddess Ganga in Hinduism, and is considered the most sacred river by Hindus. Hindu people bathe in its water, pay homage to their ancestors and gods, offer flowers and rose petals, take water in clay pots for use in rituals, and also scatter the ashes of the dead on the river.
Despite Ganga being ranked among the fifth most polluted rivers in the world, it’s common to see people, locals as well as foreigners, swimming, washing clothes, jumping from the ghats (the stairway the leads to river), and praying in the water.
There are some beautiful old palaces and forts by the river, and after walking for about 15min, I passed by the people who were carrying the body. A few steps later, I saw the bonfires and when I saw the golden pieces of cloth, I had no doubt that I had arrived at the place where they burn the bodies.
It was already getting very hot, so while I was looking for some shadow, a man started talking to me in broken English. He said that he was a burning man, and introduced me his brother, who spoke English perfectly and was able to explain everything about the crematory by the Ganges River.
The Burning Body Ceremony
Kailash, who introduced himself also as a burning man, told me that his family runs two different places by the river where the burning body ceremonies occur.
In the place where we were, there were three different spots for cremation: one for rich people (on a round cemented platform); one for people of average income (on the sand); and another for poor people (on an elevated cemented platform), all of them located in front of the river.
He also told me that the place is open 24h, because India is such a hot country and bodies can decompose very quickly in the heat, so the family has to bring the body to be cremated no later than five to seven hours after death.
Indian people are very religious and they believe that as soon as they do the ceremony, the soul of that body goes to nirvana.
Kailash also explained the burning body ceremony process: when a person dies, the family brings the body to the riverbank, they get some water from the river to purify the soul of the dead body, while a member of the family shaves the hair, and moustache or beard if necessary, to pay respect to the person who died.
The closest member of the family also has to bathe in the river, and dress all in white, as white is the symbol of purity. After that they have to buy approximately 360 kg of wood to burn the body.
The corpse is laid carefully on the woodpile that has been prepared like a bed on the riverbank and then covered with more wood.
That member of the family walks around the dead body five times (representing the five elements of Hinduism) with a torch and then lights the bonfire.
A cremation takes around three to three and a half hours, and the family will watch and wait until the end.
After Kailash left, I stayed there, watching a body being cremated. I saw a member of the family adjusting an arm of a dead body to make sure it burns properly while others were standing by the fire, and when the white cloth that covered the body disappeared, it revealed the feet of the corpse.
I have to confess that I found it shocking and disturbing to see the arm, still in an upright position, and the feet hanging off the end of the bonfire, while the family members adjusted the body on the fire for it to be completely burned.
I stayed a little longer, not knowing exactly why… Maybe because I was so perplexed, maybe because of my morbid curiosity, or maybe because I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing… Probably because of all three those reasons.
After the body is completely burned, the closest member of the family will throw a clay pot filled with water from the Ganges River on the ashes as a last farewell to the deceased. The ashes are then collected and scattered on the river by the family.
* Pictures and videos of the burning body ceremony are not allowed, however while I was talking to Kailash, a cremation was taking place, and you can see it in the background.
When I left Harischandra Ghat, the crematory, I saw some people bringing another body to be cremated, other people cleaning the corpse of a young woman with water, and a man getting his hair shaved.
Varanasi: the City of Life and Death
With my body covered in ash, and my mind whirling, I walked all the way back to the hotel.
The temperature was around 39 C (102 F), and the streets of Varanasi were even busier than before. During that walk I felt that Varanasi has something different from other places. From the many old houses and buildings that look that they’ve been abandoned, were destroyed or even could just fall apart, to the brown streets full of potholes due to construction, to the dusty air that seem to hold the city in an eternal haze… It all combines to give it a mystical and surreal ambiance.
But at the same time the streets are so busy, full of people and life, that it can’t be a “destroyed” city.
I guess this is the reason why Varanasi is considered the city of life and death.
With 80% of India’s population belonging to the Hindu religion, people from all over the country bring their relatives to be cremated in Varanasi. There are even hospitals that offer rooms for people to spend their final days here, because dying in Varanasi guarantees entry to heaven.
I’m still moved by everything I saw this morning!
For me, Varanasi, and especially the burning body ceremony, was one of the most shocking, disturbing, and at the same time interesting and spiritual things that I’ve ever seen.
According to Hindu belief, destruction is not arbitrary, but constructive. Destruction is also part of a new creation, and all beginnings, by necessity, must have an end, thus paving the way for beneficial changes.
I guess this is exactly why I’m taking my meditation course here in Varanasi. Some of my beliefs are already dying and it’s time to create new ones.
For all the struggles, hard times, and pleasures we have in life, in the end our body will be destroyed.
Whether buried, cremated in a crematory, or by the river in front of everyone like here in Varanasi, we are spending only a finite time on earth, and it’s up to us to make the best of it.
* Watch video: The extraordinary body cremation ceremony in Varanasi explained.
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Planning a trip to Varanasi
- Where is Varanasi located?
Varanasi is located on the banks of the Ganges in the Uttar Pradesh state of North India, 320 kilometers (200 mi) south-east of the state capital, Lucknow, and 121 kilometers (75 mi) east of Allahabad (see map here).
- How to get to Varanasi?
You can get in Varanasi by bus, train or airplane. By bus or train, is recommendable to buy the ticket with a travel agency, but you can check the train schedule on the Indian Railways website.
By airplane, you can use Varanasi’s international airport, which is located one hour from the city center. Some of the airline companies that fly to Varanasi are: Indigo, SpiceJet, Jet Airways, Air India and Hahn Air.
- Best time to visit Varanasi?
The best time to go to Varanasi is from October to March, when the temperature is mild, and also some festivals happen, including Diwali (the festival of lights), and Ganga Festival.
I visited Varanasi in the end of April and the temperature was almost unbearable (around 40 C, 104 F, everyday).
- Hotels in Varanasi?
The best place to stay in Varanasi is close to Dasaswamedh Ghat, one of the main ghats in the city. Here a list of some hotels that I would recommend:
• Luxury: Brijrama Palace
• Great Value for Money: Ganges Inn and Shivakash Guest House.
• Budget: Marigold Guest House
- Travel Costs
• Five months travel insurance: US$ 256 with World Nomads.
• One night at Rivera Palace: Rs 1700 (US$ 26)
• Two nights at Ganges Inn Hotel: Rs 2000 (US$ 32)
• Bus from Agra to Varanasi: Rs 1850 (US$ 28)
• Boat Trip on the Ganges River: Rs 100 (US$ 1.50)