It’s not your typical vanilla holiday destination. But what it lacks in artificial grist to the common tourist mill it unabashedly makes up for in an unrefined, pulsating, kaleidoscopic, eye-popping adventure that will shock… and linger in your memory long after you have departed the shores of the holy Ganga.
VARANASI is a rather intimidating place.
Dilapidated palaces vie with ancient temples and teetering hostels on a strip of land paying homage to one of the mightiest and holiest rivers on earth.
In the narrowing arterial lanes doggedly snaking their way towards the banks of the Ganga, a lively tide of humanity dodge piles of refuse and mounds of excrement, impervious to the incessant honking of cabs and tuk tuks determined to drop their fares near the waterfront.
Along the ghats, flinty-eyed touts prowl like sharks on the hunt, ready to unburden an unsuspecting tourist of their cash.
And then there’s the funeral pyres. Crackling flames licking hungrily at shrouded corpses atop carefully stacked piles of timber.
Not everyone’s idea of an idyllic paradise escape!
Yet almost 300,000 visitors flock to Varanasi every year to visit one of the oldest permanently inhabited, and religiously significant, settlements in the world. And while not a single visitor will admit it, they do so in the macabre hope of witnessing one or more of the 100,000 public cremations performed alongside the Ganges annually.
On the banks of the Ganga
Varanasi is situated on the banks of the Ganges River in Uttar Pradesh, roughly 320km south-east of the state capital Lucknow. Well linked by train, bus and plain to India’s major urban areas, it has become an indispensable and almost indescribable part of most Indian itineraries.
While Varanasi does boast the inevitable clutch of ‘must-see’ tourist attractions, travelers visit to imbibe the uniquely Indian cultural and religious significance of this most confronting of international destinations.
Varanasi has since ancient times held special religious meaning for India’s majority Hindu population.
Hindus believe in reincarnation, a weary cycle of deaths and rebirths that may be repeated millions of times. For the devout Hindu, dying in the Ganges River, or having holy Ganga water sprinkled upon the person at the last breath, releases them from the cycle of reincarnation to achieve moksha, a sought-after peace in Shiva’s Himalayan version of heaven.
Rewarding the Untouchables
A sub-caste called the Doms perform the cremations along Varanasi’s famous burning ghats. Society generally regard the Doms as Untouchables, from the belief that touching a corpse corrupts the person. The Doms, it is said, weep at the birth of their children and rejoice when death releases them from their ghoulish task.
However, grieving Indian families lavishly compensate the Doms for their troubles, paying exorbitant fees for the wood – stacked tellingly throughout the burning ghats – and their services in performing the ritual cremations.
The visitor’s first introduction to this ancient Hindu practice is probably aural: the approaching sounds of a procession of relatives chanting festively, ‘Rama nama satya hai’. From the gloomy lane-ways, the procession busily escorts the shrouded corpse on its last journey to the burning ghat.
The deceased is first dunked in the Ganges and then anointed with ghee before being lashed to a rectangular timber platform and wrapped in bright yellow fabric. The pyre is lit with a temple flame and witnessed in close attendance by male members of the family only. Female relatives, regarded as too emotional and prone to bouts of hysterical mourning, view from a distance as the flames join the amber of the setting sun.
Socially stratified cremation
The Doms cater to the stratified populace by offering different quality woods for various budgets. The main burning ghat is called Manikarnika, while financially challenged relatives head to the smaller ghat at Harischandra.
Depending on the amount and quality of wood, cremations last up to four hours, after which the remaining bones – such as the breastbone – and ashes are thrown in the river.
Not everyone is cremated though. Hindus view infants under two as uncorrupted and therefore their soul does not require purification through cremation. Similarly, people who die from a cobra strike will not be cremated as the snake is one of Shiva’s main attributes. The corpses of babies and snakebite victims are simply weighed down and thrown in the river.
While these real-life images for the sheltered and often non-religious Western visitor is rather confronting, nothing prepares them for the sight of Indians in neighboring bathing ghats swarming into the water only meters from the burning ghats!
Jaws drop as they merrily lather their bodies with soap and then – the pièce de résistance – brush their teeth in the river.
Baffled scientists postulate that high levels of pollution creates an ecosystem packed with feeding micro-phages that cleanse the water, no doubt assisted by snapping turtles bred to devour half-burnt body parts. The Hindu’s of course credit a higher power with preventing bathers from suffering ill effects as a result of their energetic ablutions.
Each evening at sunset, Dasaswamedh ghat lights up as saffron-robed pandits perform the Aarti – a devotional ritual using fire as offering. The blowing of a conch shell signals the start of the ceremony, which continues with the synchronized waving and circling of incense sticks and flaming lamps in tune with the clash of symbols and rhythmic chanting of hymns.
Rent one of the many small boats that ply their trade along the river for a grandstand view of the Aarti.
Varanasi is perhaps not a recommended tourist destination. Stick to the trodden tourist path if you balk at stepping from your comfort zone. However, if you are a traveler – keen to transcend the limits of time, ignorance of place or circumstance, and prejudices of intolerance – Varanasi is a must! If you are willing to be challenged, who knows, I might see you on the banks of the holy Ganga!
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