(Author: Teacher Mark)
Varanasi is everything you imagine it to be. Water buffalo, narrow streets, garbage everywhere, religious ceremonies, death, ghats (steps that go down into the river).
Death is the most striking thing about Varanasi. It doesn’t matter how prepared you are, it’ll hit you. I stayed in a hotel right behind a crematorium at Harishchadra Ghat. There seemed to be a never ending stream of bodies coming in. Some bodies were carried in by groups of men on stretchers. Some bodies were tied to the roof of vehicles. Some bodies were carried down to the river to be burned on piles of wood. Some bodies were brought to the crematorium. Death never stops in Varanasi. You see it. You hear it. You breathe it.
For Hindus, Varanasi is the best place to die. Hundreds and hundreds of bodies get cremated around the clock at the city’s burning ghats. As you near a burning ghat, you see massive piles of firewood and large scales for weighing it. Relatives of the deceased buy wood by the kilogram (about 350kg needed for each cremation).
A local man took the time to explain the process to me. Each cremation lasts about three hours. Some bodies, however, don’t get cremated - pregnant women, young children, holy men, people bitten by cobras, and people with leprosy. These bodies get tied with a large rock and placed directly into the Ganges River. The man also told me that women aren’t allowed at the ghat because they would cry too much if they witnessed the scene.
Death is something we rarely come in contact with in the West. In Varanasi I saw more bodies in 24 hours than I’ve seen in my entire life. At first I didn’t realize that the dull grey building separating my hotel from the river was a crematorium. (I could have suspected it given the smoke stacks.) The building was built on large concrete pillars with a ramp winding up to the entrance about three storeys high. As I approached the building, I noticed a woman sitting alone beside the ramp sobbing with her head in her hands. I began walking up the ramp and saw a body wrapped in white cloth lying near the entrance. Blood had soaked through the cloth at the head. I then realized why the woman was sobbing. Maybe it was her husband. Maybe he had been in a collision. Maybe it was a workplace accident. I wanted to comfort the woman somehow but was at a loss for words.
I continued up the ramp to the entrance. A policeman stood watch over the facilities operations. I cautiously peered through the large entrance and the policeman motioned me inside. It was a large empty room with nothing but cold grey cement on the floor and walls. In the centre of the room were two conveyor belts leading into the mouth of two large ovens. A body was lying on one of the belts. Near the entrance of the room was a single desk with large book on it. A man, who I’m assuming was the record keeper, was writing in the book while talking with five other men who must have been relatives of the deceased.
I observed the proceedings for a few minutes before walking back down the ramp. Kids were playing cricket between the pillars supporting the building. It was a raw illustration of the cycle of life. Life and laughter mere meters from death and sorrow.
One thing that surprised me about Varanasi was how quiet and peaceful the ghats were during the day. I figured there would be hordes of people down by the river but actually the ghats were almost bare. In four months of being in India, I would say the ghats were almost the quietest place I’ve experienced so far. At night it’s a different story though. Religious ceremonies take place at many of the ghats. The main ghat is insane. Thousands of people gather on the steps of the ghat and hundreds more watch from boats on the river.
Varanasi is a fascinating place and definitely worth a visit! I spent less than 48 hours in the city and certainly got enough of a taste to last me a while. For me, it's not a long term kind of place. Indian cities are all basically the same - loud and crowded. But if you're seeking chaos, Varanasi is the perfect place for you!