Varanasi: The Spiritual City

“That’s the place where they burn the bodies!” an occidental tourist might screech when mentioning they went to this place whilst finding themselves in India.

Whilst not in the plot for Eat, Pray, Love (or Binge, Moan and… Bali! as I saw it) Varanasi is a place that whenever I was scouting for places to visit, kept popping up and grabbing my attention.

I imagine this was most likely owing to the mysticism that surrounds the city. As well as being due to the place sounding crazy interesting – it is after all the place where they burn the bodies!

Being sacred to Hindus as a place for the reincarnation process to end, it is synonymous for the ghats where the dead are dipped in the Gange(!) river, before being cremated alongside the river with the ashes finally being placed into the river. A truly remarkable place, expressing the religion and culture of the Hindu faith.

We arrived from Agra after much train delay at 7pm in the evening, some 8 hours after initially planned. On arrival traffic was chaotic – worse the normal (allegedly) owing to an overpass which had collapsed and killed some 50 of the construction workers building it 30 minutes before our arrival. Call it gallows humour, but our tuktuk driver said “all was good” as Varanasi was a holy place to die. This is true – but surely, too soon?

On arrival at the hotel, a marigold necklace was placed on my neck, and a glass of orange juice was placed in my hand – a quick refresher which helped me put the happenings of the train endeavours behind me. Bliss.

After a night’s rest in the safety of an ac, we started off with a visit to where Bhudda gave his first sermon! Its a spiritual place for sure, and a vast number of temples align the property, though our visit was brief owing to the need for the removal of shoes prior to entering and trudging on the sunscorched floor. We then saw some Buddha statues, more Buddha statues, a gold bust with creepy outlined eyes and then a really big Buddha statue (appropriately named) and then we left – but not before another selfie with a local.

In the afternoon, boredom and shabby looks led me to the local Indian barber for a haircut. On arrival I was stared at, especially by a man in a green shirt who sat behind my stool – I assume I was the first western person he had ever seen; I was flattered to have had such an honour! (See photo of this awestruckan below). After muttering and nodding with the barber, I felt like we had mutually agreed on a flashy hairstyle for myself. I was nervous I would end up with a Liza Minelli look, but figured further conversation would only confuse his vision. After 30 minutes the cut was done, and I was looking fly AF. I tried to stand up, but was pushed down before the commencement of an abusive post-haircut “massage”, which involved snapping my fingers and contorting my spine. After ensuring rotator-cuff scarring and and a minor level of scoliosis, I was released for a small payment of Rs100s. I though this was cheap, so tipped the barber another Rs100 for gratitude (and hopefully good karma). I later found out I had been charged Rs50 too much, as Rs50 is the going rate. The bastard!

In the evening, after the heat subsided, we finally headed down to the ghats to climb aboard a ramshackle boat for a ride along the Gange (pronounce with caution).

Cows, dogs, men in skirts, people in robes (some more than others) and all sorts march along the river banks in chaotic procession, whilst a great few bathers splash without care in the water. Despite having a full vaccine card with booster shots too, I will sadly never be cultured enough to become a bather tool – Gange-lar fever (a disease I may have made up) is too high a risk in these waters. Dystenry, diphtheria and cholera may also be a risk.

To no tourist’s surprise, a number of blazing fires align the one side of the river bank, with onlookers staring as if around a camp fire. After about a 25 minute tuk up the river, we arrived at the central crematory ghat – Dasaswamedh Ghat. The surrounding buildings are charred in smoke stains from the few thousand years for which the fire pits have been blazing for cremating. The flames leap triumphantly, in brilliant reds and oranges from the pits as new wood is sacrificed into the fire consistently. On arrival, a frenzy of folk came rushing down the steps carrying a well-wrapped body dressed in marigolds and colourful fabrics, with hints of silver fabric thereon. After a light dipping in the river, the body was left legs in for about 10 minutes before being carried over for the cremation process to commence. About 300 bodies are cremated each day in Varanasi. An interesting fact (well, I found it interesting) is that pregnant women and clergy are not cremated. Rather, these bodies are released unburnt into the waters of the river. So whilst all bodies go in the river, some bodies are cremated and some aren’t.

If you want a culture shock – come to Varanasi. It’s unapologetically honest, and if you’re offended – you’re too self involved. This is Hindu tradition, and the only reason you can observe – is because they let you. Respect it. I also encourage you to look at other tourist faces during the process – purely because it is hilarious.

After our gawking, we headed back down with the Gange’s flow to where the daily fire ceremony was about to commence. Every evening, respect is shown to the gods for the bodies given up during the day; this involves a ritual consisting of a dance and 25 minute musical number. It’s all rather special, and a significant sized crowd gathers around. A sense of occasion (and incense) fills the air, whilst a number of boats fill the river space adjacent to the performance area. Never missing an opportunity, chai salesmen prance along the boats selling their produce, whilst a few have adapted to their surroundings and sell floating candles at a premium – to an Instagraming tourist’s delight! Nothing says “I know India” more than a Varanasi photo with candle some two days after being seen with the Taj Mahal! #traveller.

Tired from a Buddhist morning and a Hindu evening, we surrendered to a night of curries and lagers, this time at a very nice local restaurant – of which the name eludes my records, as well as Google’s great interest in my movements (time line). All that needs to be known is that I had a Kadai Paneer and it was great.

The next morning, we went back down to the river for another boat ride. Same place, same bathers, same fires burning, same tourists. It was much the same, only it was in the morning and everyone looked super tired and unattractive. Instagram tip: take landscape shots in the am, and selfies in the evening. You’re welcome, traveller. #traveller.

That evening, we tuktuked to our final overnight bus back to Delhi. Its safe to say I was drunk on arrival at the station, having spent most of the afternoon drinking beers alongside the finely mowed lawns on the roof of the Hotel Pradeep. After joking with a few salesman on price of goods, I gathered my biscuits, water and composure, and climbed aboard the train.

Indifferent to my odds of getting the top, top bunk yet again, I hoisted myself up and fell into a deep sleep, awaking on arrival in Delhi. All posts end with me falling asleep, because its true – I always fall asleep at the end.

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