Why would someone want to travel halfway around the world to experience a place where people come to die? I asked myself this same exact question and was fascinated by a city that brought together the entire life cycle from death and rebirth through ritual celebrations. It is one of the holiest and oldest cities in the entire world.
At first glance this doesn’t look like a holy city. Arriving upon this wonder, we found cows lining up in the middle of the road, grazing on trash as motorbikes whirled right past them. However as we arrived at our homestay we met the Kaper’s who greeted us with marigold necklaces, blessed us with a red dot on our foreheads, said a prayer, and handed us some juice to make us feel welcome. My sister and I were so touched by their graciousness as they explained that in India and in the Hindu religion, guests in their home were seen as Gods and are expected to be treated with the utmost love and respect. They went on to say that our trip to Varanassi, their home for all their lives, would be an extremely special one and that it was not a city to just see, but to feel. I immediately thought to myself, this is a place I am meant to be.
Our driver and guide came to pick us up about 30 minutes later and we walked towards the famous holy river, Ganges. The Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, but people come from all over come to bath in it, repenting and washing away all of their sins. Our guide, Ritu, explained the cast of holy people lining the steps (which they call ghats) down to the river. We first saw a beautiful old man with long white hair and a beard (pictured above). He wore nothing up top, but an orange skirt with white paint markings on his face and arms. He looked like he had stood the test of time and as my eyes met his, he looked right through me and put his hands together in a Namaste position bowing to me. I looked back and bowed right back to him. Ritu told us that this type of holy man was called a devotee and spent 365 days a year on the ghat of the ganges praying. I could not believe what devotion these men had to stop everything and sit on the same stoop day in and day out. No matter what your belief is, it’s so interesting how life can give you different lenses and ideas on how you should devote your time on Earth.
The next group of people that Ritu pointed out were the pilgrims. They travel from countries all over to stay a week or two and pray every day on the river. Some of these pilgrims are homeless and wander from town to town visiting temples and praying to their millions of Gods (literally the Hindu religion has 33 million Gods!!). Other pilgrims have homes, but decide to come to Varanasi to worship and sleep on the filthy ground in the streets at night, guarding the storefronts for the city owners (win/win situation….free place to stay and built in security system for locals).
Walking all the way down the stairs to the river, our rowboat picked us up and we began our tour of the Ganges. Our guide rowed us past some of the most spectacular sites I had ever seen. Paddling our way down the Ganges we stopped upon the most famous crematorium in all of Varanasi (Manikarnika Ghat). Bodies in India can only be preserved for 2-3 days so typically, families come with their dying loved ones about a week before their journey on Earth is about to end. Once they pass away in Varanassi, the women of the family say their final goodbyes and are not allowed to come to the crematorium in fear that they will show too much emotion and cry….in Hindu culture this experience of releasing the soul is supposed to be a very joyous occasion.
As we neared the ghat, I saw that four dead bodies lay on the steps. They were all on wooden stretchers and had been wrapped in orange cloth (which we later found out to be one of the most holy colors, along with the color red). Family members lifted the corpse by the stretcher and brought it down into the Ganges river, submerging it several times to soak in the holy water. Once they brought the body back up onto land, they would unwrap the head of the corpse and pour water from the river into their mouths. Once the water had been all soaked up and the body was dry once more, they carried it over to the fire and lay it in between the wood burning fires (there must have been 5 fires going on during the time Debbie and I were there). We watched the bodies burn as loved ones payed their final respects, believing that they had escaped reincarnation and were headed straight to Nirvana. I had originally thought this part of our trip was going to blow my mind and actually haunt me a little bit. In fact, it did the exact opposite. It gave me a calmer sense of death and the cycle of life. I thought it was a beautiful ritual and loved seeing what faith these people had in the cycle of death and rebirth. For once I was speechless. It was one of the saddest, yet most beautiful things I had ever witnessed. If you do not feel your hairs standing on edge at this juncture, you better check for your own pulse and be thrown into your own fire. Again, Varanasi is not a place to be seen, but to truly feel. What I felt was small…a renewed sense of energy and purpose…and everything in between.
Ritu explained that we had to leave this place of death to go to the nightly ritual they held on the Ganges every day of the week to celebrate life. The dichotomy of this city was so incredibly powerful. At that moment we were handed exquisite offerings that had flower petals of every color and a lit candle in the middle. We both made a wish and gently laid it in the water, watching our hopes and prayers drift away. My sister and I looked back at one another in that moment and embraced saying I love you with tears in our eyes. These types of memories are what life is made for.
Our boat approached the famous Dashashwamedh Ghat where the nightly rituals take place every evening. We could see priests dressed in orange once again swirling fire, and chanting their beautiful mantras while hundreds of thousands of people stood on the steps in prayer. Behind our boat there were hundreds of other boats in the water that were filled to the brim with people of faith all dressed in their Sari’s, lighting candles with flower peddles as offerings and sending them home into the water. People were passing around a large flame where they would put their hands over it to heat and then rub their hands over their head with warmth. Ritu explained that people were doing this to make sure that the light was able to get inside of them, ensuring that their souls would not be dimmed. What a beautiful sentiment I thought. Little boys bounced from boat to boat holding large jugs of tea marsala and offering water to those who needed it. These children could not have been older than 12 years old. What a different life experience. How would these children grow up? Where would I be in my life after they entered adulthood?
I walked the steps up the Dashashwamedh Ghat after the ceremony and felt so alive and so dead at the very same time. Ironic, I realize. Sensory overload to the maximum and jet lag kicking in…all I wanted to do was fall fast asleep and make sense of it all in my dreams.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s sunrise on the Ganges 🙂