Where’s your favourite travel destination? I can’t answer this question without changing my mind a million times — partly because I’m very indecisive, but mostly because I’ve fallen in love with lots of places for different reasons. It might be the warm smiles of the locals, the serenity of a vast mountain range or the excitement of a big city lit up at night. But when it comes to choosing the most fascinating place, there’s no hesitation. That place is Varanasi, a 4,000-year-old city nestled in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world. For Hindus, it’s the holiest of the seven holy cities in India. Most Hindus hope to visit Varanasi at least once in their lifetime, and over 2.5 million devotees travel to the city from far and wide every year. Supposedly, Lord Shiva created Varanasi and lived there with his wife, Goddess Parvati, at the beginning of time. What makes Varanasi so sacred is the Ganges river, also known as ‘Ganga Ma’ or ‘Mother Ganga’, that flows down from the Himalayas. If Varanasi is the spiritual heart of India, then the Ganges is the vein that pulses through it — a source of life and faith that holds the city together.
It’s believed that the stairway to heaven is just above Varanasi, so being cremated here gets you a golden ticket to the afterlife. Hindus believe we are reincarnated until we have worked through all of our karma - the consequences of our actions. The souls of the bodies cremated in Varanasi are liberated from the continuous cycle of rebirth and go straight to nirvana. With direct access to the stairway to heaven, you can imagine the demand to be cremated here is high. Families make difficult journeys to the holy city from all over India, often putting the corpse in a car boot and covering it with ice.
With such high demand, Varanasi is the only city in India where the pyres burn 24/7. On several occasions, I was walking down a narrow alleyway and a loud clanging of bells and chimes suddenly came around the corner. It was a procession of men carrying a corpse down to the ghats where the ceremonies take place. ‘Ghat’ is the Indian word for a flight of concrete stairs that lead down to a river. The bodies are cremated at different heights, depending on the class of the person when they were alive. Women aren’t allowed to the cremation because, as one local man told me, they cry too much. Their tears prevent the souls from leaving this life and going on to their next destination. I found this quite upsetting. It’s also customary for males to shave their heads as a sign of respect when an elder member of the family has passed away.
The corpses are rubbed with ghee (purified butter), wrapped in white cloth and adorned with fresh flowers. The head and feet remain exposed as they are sacred. The family carries the corpse down to the river where they sprinkle it with holy water and say their final prayers. They then place the body on a specially arranged pyre made from sandalwood. It takes roughly five hours to burn, and any remaining bones are thrown into the water. Certain people are exempt from being cremated as they are already pure and will not be reincarnated. They are children under the age of ten, pregnant women, enlightened sadhus (holy men), people who had leprosy and those bitten by a cobra. Instead, they are wrapped in cloth, weighted with rocks and dropped in the river.
Anyone can go to the ghats to watch the ceremonies, but I chose not to as the environment was intense even from the sidelines, and also because it felt intrusive. I watched from a riverboat, and seeing the bright orange blaze from afar was enough to give me goosebumps. Floating on a rickety wooden boat, and observing and absorbing every sight and sound that emanated from the ghats, I had never seen such a stark contrast of life and death. It really struck me, and with my head resting in my hands, there had never been a more fitting moment to ponder some of the big questions in life.
What I loved most about Varanasi is that you can sit in the same spot for hours and never tire of watching life happening all around you. At any one moment, there was a rainbow of women in saris washing clothes and dishes, people bathing, people praying, children playing, a newly-wed couple being blessed by a priest, swimming lessons, water buffalo splashing around to cool down and people shaving their heads in a religious ceremony. There was also a mass yoga and laughter meditation class held by one of the ashrams every morning. Stretching and laughing with hundreds of people was certainly one way to start the day. And every evening, hundreds of people gather along the ghats to worship the river. It’s a pretty spectacular occasion with thousands of candles, fire, song and dance.
Varanasi may be a spiritual Mecca, but it’s also commercialised, rowdy and polluted. It was very difficult to get my head around how the most sacred river could be so dirty. But you become acquainted with contradictions in India, and Varanasi was no exception. Experiencing such a raw and explicit view of death was both fascinating and shocking, confronting and peaceful. But above all else, it was a heavy reminder that life is precious.
Images by Anja Sander, @anjasander82