VARANASI, THE SPIRITUAL CITY OF INDIA

Varanasi, one of the seven holy cities of India, was highly recommended to us by many people. We even changed our initiary, taking a half daylong train to get there and back, but we certainly didn’t leave disappointed.

The fog and cold weather seemed to be following us from Agra as our train built up a nine-hour delay. Luckily, we upgraded our way of travel this time, choosing the higher class, which was a lot more comfortable, clean and warm. We found a very decent guesthouse, located a bit further from all the action, but with one of the hottest showers we came across. It’s funny how India makes you really appreciate the little things like this.

We were exploring the riverbanks the next day. It’s where all the action is as pilgrims are coming from all parts of India to wash away their sins in the holy Ganga River. The whole western riverbank of the Ganges in Varanasi is covered with Ghats, over 80 of them. They are actually steep steps leading down to the river where the pilgrims are doing their ritual. They come down to the river, do their prayer and give offerings before taking a bath, which washes away their sins. It may sound nice but after you take a closer look at probably the most polluted river you have ever seen, you would have to be either really religious or really brave to take a bath there. The main reason why neither of us would ever consider it is because the Ghats are also used for something else than just bathing in the Ganges.

The thing, that everybody that has ever been to Varanasi will remember, is the burning Ghats. It’s where the dead bodies are burnt right on the riverbank. It’s one of the reasons why Varanasi is one of the seven holy cities of India, as everybody wants their body to be cremated here after they die. They burn from 150 to 200 bodies every day and the whole process is going on in public so everyone can come up close and take a look. The sight is not for the feint hearted, though, as you can clearly see the human bodies burning right in front of your eyes while standing just a couple of feet away. It was the first time we even saw a dead body, yet alone a dozen of them on fire all around us. The experience definitely made us think about life and death, but also opened our minds and gave us a completely different perspective of how it is done in India. A man, presumably someone who is working there and is regarded as a priest of some sort, walked up to us and explained the process of the ceremony.

The whole thing starts as the family of the deceased carries the body, wrapped in cloth, down to the river where it is completely submerged under water and then left to dry on the steps of the burning Ghat. Meanwhile, the elder son or nephew of the deceased shaves his head so that his mind can more easily detach from the soul leaving. No women are allowed to participate in the ceremony as their tears might hold back the soul of the deceased. In fact, there is no crying or real sadness to be seen as they try to celebrate death more than actually mourning for the dead. The next step is setting up the wooden platform on which they lay the body. Sandal and ironwood are commonly used for this as they hold some oils inside that somewhat kill the otherwise reeking smell of burning bodies. The wood is expensive and the amount used to completely burn a body, which takes about 3 hours, is carefully calculated. The elder son brings the flames of the Eternal fire, which has been continuously burning for thousands of years in the nearby temple, and walks around the body on the wooden platform five times. This is done to clear all the five elements before lighting the fire. After about 3 hours the body is burnt and a piece of bone, the chest bone if it was a male and a hip bone if it was a female, is thrown in to the Ganges. Then the head shaved elder son scoops some water from the river in a clay bowl and walks back up to the burning place. He turns his back to the ashes of the deceased, throws the clay bowl of water over his head and thus breaks the bowl and all ties linking him to the soul which is now free to depart from this world. After this final act, the family walks away without looking back. They get the collected ashes later and scatter them in to the Ganges. This is the way every Hindu wants to leave the earth and we found the whole process and ceremony very beautiful and interesting, even though the smell and the sight of a burning body aren’t something we truly enjoyed.

One morning, we walked to the main Ghat where the morning ceremony was taking place at sunrise. There was a holy priest conducting the ceremony where he was playing bells of many kinds and waiving special types of lit up candleholders. During this, there were people and pilgrims scattered all around the Ghats, giving offerings and taking a holy bath in the river Ganges. It was a very peaceful, beautiful and spiritual sight, which gave us a feeling of respect and calmness. Varanasi was definitely the most spiritual part of India we came across.

Other than all the pilgrims taking baths and all the dead bodies, there are also other people spending their time on the Ghats. Sadhus, the holy men wrapped in yellow, orange and red, often with heavily painted faces, are walking or just sitting on the river banks. Some are giving blessings, some are smoking weed and others begging for money. They get angry if you start pointing your camera towards them so we didn’t manage to get the best photo of them. But we still made a few, including a close up of a Sadhu falling asleep while begging for change. There was also a whole fleet of people selling boat rides on the riverbank, yelling: “Boat! Boat, Sir!?” at almost every step of the way. We took two boat rides. One in the evening, going to the burning Ghat to get a view from a different angle and also going at the main Ghat where an evening ceremony was taking place. We took the other boat ride on a day when the sun finally came out of the fog and enabled us to see and enjoy all the colours that Varanasi can throw at you. It was really nice to get a view of the Ghats from the river itself as it gives you a different perspective and idea how this strange place functions.

We shared the boat with a very friendly Dutch guy named Maarten. We met him at our guesthouse and hit it of great from the very beginning. He came to India from Nepal recently and gave us a ton of advice and information about trekking in Nepal. Apart from the boat ride, we also shared a tour of the silk factory with him. A German woman, living in the same guesthouse, is doing business with a local silk factory, exporting the fine fabrics to Europe. She took us on a tour where we were explained the whole process of making these beautiful fabrics. It was very interesting and at times hard to understand how the machines actually work. They showed us how the low quality fabrics are made super fast and how high quality handmade pieces take a very long time to make. Of course they showed us the final product in the end with the intention of selling something, but they weren’t pushy at all, so we didn’t end up paying for anything else than the rickshaw drive there and back.

In Varanasi we also met up with our Lithuanian friends, Olga and Vaidas. This time it was our last encounter with them in India as they were headed towards Kolkata and their flight to Thailand after. They didn’t have much time for Varanasi as their train from Delhi got terribly delayed for 17 hours. But it was enough time to say goodbye and share the best lassi in India with them. The four of us and our new friend Maarten went to the Blue Lassi shop with us leading the way through the narrow windy back streets of Varanasi. We’ve been there twice before and the lassi was really the best one we had in India. It took a lot of time to get it but the wait was definitely worth it. That’s how we said goodbye to Olga and Vaidas, very nice people with whom we wonderfully connected and basically travelled India together. We hope our paths will cross again some day. It’s like that when you travel and meet these kinds of beautiful people. You really enjoy the time spent with them but when it’s time to say goodbye there shouldn’t be any sadness but rather a joy you had an opportunity to meet them. People come and go as you travel and after they left we found a good travel buddy in Maarten. We also agreed to meet up with him in Rishikesh, our next destination after Delhi.

We left spiritual Varanasi more than happy that we didn’t skip it, and left for the city we where a little bit afraid of: Delhi. We almost missed our train as we ran into some traffic jams on the way to the train station, but made it with just a few minutes to spare. On the overnight train we where still under the influence of the almost magical Varanasi and we somehow couldn’t get some of the images we saw out of our heads. It also felt like the smell of burning bodies from the burning Ghats was following us.

Varanasi, one of the seven holy cities of India, was highly recommended to us by many people. We even changed our initiary, taking a half daylong train to get there and back, but we certainly didn’t leave disappointed.

The fog and cold weather seemed to be following us from Agra as our train built up a nine-hour delay. Luckily, we upgraded our way of travel this time, choosing the higher class, which was a lot more comfortable, clean and warm. We found a very decent guesthouse, located a bit further from all the action, but with one of the hottest showers we came across. It’s funny how India makes you really appreciate the little things like this.

We were exploring the riverbanks the next day. It’s where all the action is as pilgrims are coming from all parts of India to wash away their sins in the holy Ganga River. The whole western riverbank of the Ganges in Varanasi is covered with Ghats, over 80 of them. They are actually steep steps leading down to the river where the pilgrims are doing their ritual. They come down to the river, do their prayer and give offerings before taking a bath, which washes away their sins. It may sound nice but after you take a closer look at probably the most polluted river you have ever seen, you would have to be either really religious or really brave to take a bath there. The main reason why neither of us would ever consider it is because the Ghats are also used for something else than just bathing in the Ganges.

The thing, that everybody that has ever been to Varanasi will remember, is the burning Ghats. It’s where the dead bodies are burnt right on the riverbank. It’s one of the reasons why Varanasi is one of the seven holy cities of India, as everybody wants their body to be cremated here after they die. They burn from 150 to 200 bodies every day and the whole process is going on in public so everyone can come up close and take a look. The sight is not for the feint hearted, though, as you can clearly see the human bodies burning right in front of your eyes while standing just a couple of feet away. It was the first time we even saw a dead body, yet alone a dozen of them on fire all around us. The experience definitely made us think about life and death, but also opened our minds and gave us a completely different perspective of how it is done in India. A man, presumably someone who is working there and is regarded as a priest of some sort, walked up to us and explained the process of the ceremony.

The whole thing starts as the family of the deceased carries the body, wrapped in cloth, down to the river where it is completely submerged under water and then left to dry on the steps of the burning Ghat. Meanwhile, the elder son or nephew of the deceased shaves his head so that his mind can more easily detach from the soul leaving. No women are allowed to participate in the ceremony as their tears might hold back the soul of the deceased. In fact, there is no crying or real sadness to be seen as they try to celebrate death more than actually mourning for the dead. The next step is setting up the wooden platform on which they lay the body. Sandal and ironwood are commonly used for this as they hold some oils inside that somewhat kill the otherwise reeking smell of burning bodies. The wood is expensive and the amount used to completely burn a body, which takes about 3 hours, is carefully calculated. The elder son brings the flames of the Eternal fire, which has been continuously burning for thousands of years in the nearby temple, and walks around the body on the wooden platform five times. This is done to clear all the five elements before lighting the fire. After about 3 hours the body is burnt and a piece of bone, the chest bone if it was a male and a hip bone if it was a female, is thrown in to the Ganges. Then the head shaved elder son scoops some water from the river in a clay bowl and walks back up to the burning place. He turns his back to the ashes of the deceased, throws the clay bowl of water over his head and thus breaks the bowl and all ties linking him to the soul which is now free to depart from this world. After this final act, the family walks away without looking back. They get the collected ashes later and scatter them in to the Ganges. This is the way every Hindu wants to leave the earth and we found the whole process and ceremony very beautiful and interesting, even though the smell and the sight of a burning body aren’t something we truly enjoyed.

One morning, we walked to the main Ghat where the morning ceremony was taking place at sunrise. There was a holy priest conducting the ceremony where he was playing bells of many kinds and waiving special types of lit up candleholders. During this, there were people and pilgrims scattered all around the Ghats, giving offerings and taking a holy bath in the river Ganges. It was a very peaceful, beautiful and spiritual sight, which gave us a feeling of respect and calmness. Varanasi was definitely the most spiritual part of India we came across.

Other than all the pilgrims taking baths and all the dead bodies, there are also other people spending their time on the Ghats. Sadhus, the holy men wrapped in yellow, orange and red, often with heavily painted faces, are walking or just sitting on the river banks. Some are giving blessings, some are smoking weed and others begging for money. They get angry if you start pointing your camera towards them so we didn’t manage to get the best photo of them. But we still made a few, including a close up of a Sadhu falling asleep while begging for change. There was also a whole fleet of people selling boat rides on the riverbank, yelling: “Boat! Boat, Sir!?” at almost every step of the way. We took two boat rides. One in the evening, going to the burning Ghat to get a view from a different angle and also going at the main Ghat where an evening ceremony was taking place. We took the other boat ride on a day when the sun finally came out of the fog and enabled us to see and enjoy all the colours that Varanasi can throw at you. It was really nice to get a view of the Ghats from the river itself as it gives you a different perspective and idea how this strange place functions.

We shared the boat with a very friendly Dutch guy named Maarten. We met him at our guesthouse and hit it of great from the very beginning. He came to India from Nepal recently and gave us a ton of advice and information about trekking in Nepal. Apart from the boat ride, we also shared a tour of the silk factory with him. A German woman, living in the same guesthouse, is doing business with a local silk factory, exporting the fine fabrics to Europe. She took us on a tour where we were explained the whole process of making these beautiful fabrics. It was very interesting and at times hard to understand how the machines actually work. They showed us how the low quality fabrics are made super fast and how high quality handmade pieces take a very long time to make. Of course they showed us the final product in the end with the intention of selling something, but they weren’t pushy at all, so we didn’t end up paying for anything else than the rickshaw drive there and back.

In Varanasi we also met up with our Lithuanian friends, Olga and Vaidas. This time it was our last encounter with them in India as they were headed towards Kolkata and their flight to Thailand after. They didn’t have much time for Varanasi as their train from Delhi got terribly delayed for 17 hours. But it was enough time to say goodbye and share the best lassi in India with them. The four of us and our new friend Maarten went to the Blue Lassi shop with us leading the way through the narrow windy back streets of Varanasi. We’ve been there twice before and the lassi was really the best one we had in India. It took a lot of time to get it but the wait was definitely worth it. That’s how we said goodbye to Olga and Vaidas, very nice people with whom we wonderfully connected and basically travelled India together. We hope our paths will cross again some day. It’s like that when you travel and meet these kinds of beautiful people. You really enjoy the time spent with them but when it’s time to say goodbye there shouldn’t be any sadness but rather a joy you had an opportunity to meet them. People come and go as you travel and after they left we found a good travel buddy in Maarten. We also agreed to meet up with him in Rishikesh, our next destination after Delhi.

We left spiritual Varanasi more than happy that we didn’t skip it, and left for the city we where a little bit afraid of: Delhi. We almost missed our train as we ran into some traffic jams on the way to the train station, but made it with just a few minutes to spare. On the overnight train we where still under the influence of the almost magical Varanasi and we somehow couldn’t get some of the images we saw out of our heads. It also felt like the smell of burning bodies from the burning Ghats was following us.

6 thoughts on “VARANASI, THE SPIRITUAL CITY OF INDIA

  1. Jana

    Lepo napisano in me veseli, da se vaju je Varanasi tako dotaknil. Enostavno te ne more pustiti ravnodušnega.
    Srečno potujta naprej 🙂

  2. Olga

    Ohhh…guys! How sweet to read about good own selves!:D

    Great pic of the sadhu too:D there is a travel add now on lithuanian tv, with an awake sadhu and Varanasi banks. Makes me proud every time;)

    1. Rea

      Yeah, we really had a great time with you guys! We miss you! So, when are you planning to head off for the next trip? 🙂 You should continue following our blog and join us somewhere!

  3. Brittany Kish

    Great post! I had to read more about this city after you described it last night. What a fascinating place, when I make it to India I’ll be sure to go for the sights and the lassi.
    It was wonderful to meet you both and I wish you luck!
    Brittany (from Begnas!)

    1. Rea

      Hey Brittany,

      Thanks for the comment, I’m glad you liked the post 🙂

      Good luck to you too, have fun the rest of your days at Begnas and we keep in contact 🙂

      Hugs!

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