“Don’t go to Varanasi.” That’s what we’d been told by a few people we’d met on our trip. “You’ll either love it or hate it,” others had said. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted. Filthy, smoggy, the traffic is insane – it makes New Delhi seem like The Cotswolds. But it is one of, if not the most mesmerising and unforgettable places we have ever been.
Imagine a post-apocalyptic scene – bonfires in the street, alarms constantly blaring, litter and faeces everywhere and a choking smog so thick it’s difficult to breathe. Your tuk tuk weaves through traffic coming from every direction, horns honking, brakes screeching and missing other vehicles by centimetres. You arrive at the sacred river Ganges as the sun sets and the mist is rolling in. A small rowing boat takes you out onto the water and you stop at a cremation point on the riverbank, where five bonfires are burning dead bodies right in front of your eyes. It’s almost Medieval, or like a scene from The Bible. You know what’s happening but you can’t take your eyes off it. A morbid curiosity. This is Varanasi.
One of the oldest cities in the world, Varanasi is known as the spiritual capital of India. Hindus believe that the city was founded by the god Shiva and pilgrims come from all over the country to bathe in the sacred river Ganges. Steps known as Ghats lead into the river from the embankment and they are used for spiritual rituals and prayer ceremonies.
We witnessed an evening ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat from our boat. Seven priests line up every day to perform this ceremony of light as a thanks to the Mother Ganges. Hundreds of people watched from the river and on the ghats. The priests sounded conch horns, bells, clapped, chanted, burnt incense and lit candles.
In the morning we revisited the ghats and saw a typical day at dawn on the river. Children practicing yoga, pilgrims bathing in the water, meditating, praying and cremations taking place all day long. Female family members are not allowed to attend the cremations, apparently they are too emotional and they cry all the time (our guide actually said this!), so they stay at home while the men perform the ceremonies.
We were standing on a ghat when the body of a man was carried down, wrapped in white cloth with his face visible. The family washed the body in the Ganges and he was placed on top of the fire. Hindus believe that if they die in Varanasi, Shiva will liberate them from the continuous cycle of birth and death and they will achieve nirvana.
Varanasi, a city of contradictions where life and death are intertwined. Ugly yet beautiful. Chaotic yet peaceful. We don’t think we’ll ever experience anything like it again.