Varanasi is probably one of the most unreal places I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. It’s a city that people may love or hate, but nobody leaves without a lasting impression.
Varanasi is a place where people come to spend their last days and … pass away. A dark analogy would be that Varanasi to India is somewhat like Florida to United States, but without the nice beaches or the high-quality retirement communities.
Located on the bank of the Ganga river, Varanasi is considered to be one of the holiest cities among Hindus, as well as one of the oldest inhabited places in the world. The general belief is that if you die and your body is burned in Varanasi and the ashes are deposited into the Ganga river, you will take a shortcut straight to Nirvana [as opposed to being re-incaranted and having to come back to this world]. As a result, many people either come to spend their final days here or simply request their relatives to have their bodies cremated here after death.
There are 2 fire sites for cremation that are running on the bank of the river 24 hours a day . Through the course of every day and night, over 150 people are burned and their ashes are disseminated over the waters.
There are, however, five categories of people that cannot be cremated for various reasons, so their bodies are wrapped in cloth, weighed down with ropes to heavy rocks, and deposited into the river. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for the ropes to break and the cadavers to float up to the top.
Among all of this, the Ganga river itself lies at the core of everything that goes on in the city. Thousands upon thousands of people come out every morning to the river bank for bathing in its water.
We weren’t able to see the full morning ritual, as we arrived too late in the afternoon, but we did witness the evening ritual, during which people gather to honor the river.
As we were sitting on the steps and observing the ritual, we were approached by a local kid, about 12 years old. After the usual set of questions of where we’re from and how do we like India, he explained the proceeding to us and then offered us to show the area where the burning takes place.
It was a few minutes away from the crowds, but it seemed worlds away. There was no lighting except half a dozen fires with activity taking place around each one. It was hard to comprehend what was actually happening on each fire. It’s a very a troubling thing to watch as wrapped-up bodies are constantly delivered to the fires by the relatives or the workers for the procedure.
We were introduced to a local worker, who described the process to us and showed us around. He showed us the different kinds of firewood that could be used, depending on your budget (it can go up to as high as $100 or more per cremation or if you have no money, you can opt for a gas-powered fire, which unfortunately doesn’t give you access to Nirvana).
Then, he showed us a few stark-looking buildings and explained that this is the place that older people come to to wait for their death. If they have no relatives or nowhere to go, they can come here and stay for free.
Varanasi is truly something else. Like I said, some people love it, some people it – but nobody leaves without a lasting impression.