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The Ghats of Varanasi

I feel like I need to add a disclaimer to the beginning of this post. It was one of the most difficult I’ve ever written; I don’t often think it hard to find the right words when I’m writing, but this post was the exact opposite of that. I tried to be as respectful and inoffensive as possible in my descriptions and opinions, and I apologize if I offend any who read this.

You can’t come to India without expecting the country to have a severe and permeating impact on your life. I saw things in India that I’d never seen before and likely never will again. That being said, the way I felt in Varanasi has become the emotional center of my trip. Nothing could have prepared me for Varanasi, our last stop in India before heading off to Nepal.

Along the banks of the Ganges
Along the banks of the Ganges

Varanasi, which has also historically been known as Banaras, is a city with multiple claims to fame. For one, it’s the longest continuously inhabited city in the world. Other cities, like Rome and Athens, may be technically older, but Varanasi wins out on the terms that somebody has always called it home. It’s a title that you can’t really contest either; Varanasi’s streets positively ache and groan with age. Mark Twain had it right when he wrote, “Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

If that weren’t impressive enough, Varanasi is also the most sacred city in the Hindu religion. Of the seven holy pilgrimage sites in India, Varanasi reigns as top dog. (Or should that be “top cow”?) What Jerusalem and Mecca are to Judaism and Islam, respectively, Varanasi is to Hinduism. A lot of Hindus believe that death in Varanasi guarantees salvation. Much of that holiness stems from Varanasi’s position on the western banks of the mighty Ganges River. Just in general, the entire length of the Ganges, from its source in the Himalayas to its mouth in the Bay of Bengal, is considered holy. In Varanasi, that’s magnified because the river flows from south to north, rather than north to south.

It's traditional to buy these floating candles, light them while on the river, place them in the water with your right hand, and then make a wish.
It’s traditional to buy these floating candles, light them while on the river, place them in the water with your right hand, and then make a wish.
Children sell them for around 10-20 rupees apiece.
Children sell them for around 10-20 rupees apiece.
I was all ready to make my wish.
I was all ready to make my wish.
And there went my wish, carried away by the currents of the Ganges.
And there went my wish, carried away by the currents of the Ganges.

To bath in the Ganges, according to Hinduism, is to be absolved of your sins, and cruising down the river at sunrise in a canoe will guarantee you seeing people of both sexes and all ages bathing and washing their laundry in the river’s waters.

Dashashwamedh Ghat
Dashashwamedh Ghat

A good chunk of the two days we spent in Varanasi was centered around the Ganges and its banks. Of all the sights in the city, the ghats along the banks of the Ganges are likely the most notorious. ‘Ghat’ is simply the term used for steps that lead into a river in India, and there are nearly a hundred in Varanasi alone. On our first evening there, our group took to the river in a canoe to view the evening Agni Pooja (“Worship of Fire”) prayer that the priests dedicate to Lord Shiva at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, which is the most famous ghat in Varanasi. The air becomes hazy with smoke and incense, and canoes clog the waters around the ghat.

Praying to Shiva
Praying to Shiva
Flames dance and the clanging chimes and chants of the priests ring out over the water and enraptured crowds.
Flames dance and the clanging chimes and chants of the priests ring out over the water and enraptured crowds.

The next morning, we returned to the same are to view the sunrise. At first, it looked like we wouldn’t see the sun through the ever-present fog, but eventually, just when we’d about given up, the fiery red orb of the rising sun burned through the haze.

Around 5 a.m. on the Ganges and it's basically still nighttime.
Around 5 a.m. on the Ganges and it’s basically still nighttime.
The morning starts off hazy and gray.
The morning starts off hazy and gray.
Eventually, though, the sun broke through.
Eventually, though, the sun broke through.
This was definitely worth waking up around 4 a.m.
This was definitely worth waking up around 4 a.m.
The burnished sun reflecting off of the Ganges.
The burnished sun reflecting off of the Ganges.

Of the many ghats in Varanasi, most as designated for bathing and other everyday activities. A few, like Manikarnika Ghat, are known as “the burning ghats.” So what makes them burn? Bodies. A few of the ghats are used solely as cremation sites. Cremation is an important part of Hinduism, as it’s believed that burning the body after death encourages the soul to move on, rather than linger. That’s obviously a gross over-simplification of the importance of cremation, but it’s the most important reason. The only Hindus who aren’t cremated are babies, the lowliest of castes, and priests, who are believed to be enlightened enough already to resist the attachment to their corporeal body. At any hour of day or night, cremations are continuously being carried out on these ghats.

Varanasi never feels more ancient than when you're on the river.
Varanasi never feels more ancient than when you’re on the river and see the cremation fires.

It’s one thing to read “bodies are cremated here” and wholly another to see the flames of the fires flickering off of the Ganges’ waters at twilight. There was something entirely medieval about the scene. We saw the burning ghats from a canoe in the water, and if it hadn’t been for our modern clothes and cameras, nothing would have indicated that we were in the 21st century. I was not prepared for how much this affected me. I can’t in good conscience use the word “uncomfortable,” because that connotes that there’s something wrong with this tradition. I don’t believe that at all, and I cannot stress enough how much I respect the Hindu religion and what it can offer people. My reaction reflects solely on myself, not on Varanasi or Hinduism.

Personally speaking, I’m not comfortable with death. Hospitals and funeral homes scare the hell out of me. I’m not a terribly squeamish person, and it wasn’t the act of cremation itself that affected me so strongly. In the end, I think it was the shift of something that I’d previously thought as private into a public sphere. As someone who isn’t a Hindu – and not religious at all, in fact – I felt as if I were infringing on something that was not meant for my eyes. This was purely my own opinion, as these cremations are meant to be a celebration of that person’s life and the hope that their next life will be better. Spirituality is redolent in the air of Varanasi; I felt like I inhaled it with every breath, and it left me fighting back tears when we were in the vicinity of the ghats.

That pink tower is the unofficial landmark that separates the area around Manikarnika Ghat.
There are several pink towers along the western banks. The last before the cremation site is the unofficial landmark that separates the area around Manikarnika Ghat. After you pass it, no pictures are allowed.

Our guide had informed us that we were allowed to take pictures of the ghats up until a certain point. While we were on the far side of the tower used as the barrier, I snapped a few zoomed-out pictures of the burning ghats, but once we crossed over, I was all too eager to stow my camera away in my bag. Any closer and taking pictures was incredibly taboo.

It’s a rule I understood perfectly from the view of a tourist; as someone visiting another culture, it’s important to be respectful. But on an even more basic level, why would you even want a picture of such an event? It’s not something to slap up on Facebook for your friends to ‘like’ or to show off to your family in a slideshow upon returning home. From a Hindu’s viewpoint, I can only imagine, that it’s magnified exponentially. To turn something so holy and sacred into a tourist trap would be unimaginably disrespectful. After we had crossed into “no picture land,” a man in a nearby canoe had snapped a photo, and our guide hadn’t hesitated before calmly saying to him, “I should take that camera from you and throw it in the river.” The other man had looked angrily affronted, but I couldn’t have agreed with our guide more.

Death, even when it is as public as it is on the burning ghats, should never be a spectacle. When you are an onlooker who could not possibly understand the multiple layers of importance present, as we were, such a ceremony does not belong in the viewfinder of your Nikon. Varanasi’s atmosphere overwhelmed me unlike anything else, and I think it will be a long time before a place similarly affects me.

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