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Varanasi. Death.

Written on: Thursday May 14th, 2009

A journal entry from: In the spiced Indian air....

Posted 2 blogs at once so be sure to click above this: "INKED" in Cochin Kerala to read the previous one!

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This city... The Holiest city in India... there are honestly no words. I'm going to do my best to explain it, but will preface by saying it is the most culturally rich and complex city I have EVER been to.

First off, Varanasi is arguably THE most important city for Hindus. The reason? Well if you die here, or have your ashes spread here, or have your body sunk in the river Ganges, you will be broken free from the seemingly endless cycle of reincarnation. For this reason I wonder why the city's population is only 1.2 million. The old city is a complete maze of shockingly narrow stone streets boardered by tall ancient stone buildings. It could be straight out of a medieval horror movie, especially at night. We got lost countless times, and in the dark you never know what you'll step in. Yes there are even cows in these narrow ancient streets. There are tiny shops just big enough for the owner to sit cross-legged inside and sell snacks and hindu paraphenalia. There are so many nooks and crannies it was lots of fun to explore. But yes, creepy.

The old city is set alongside the Ganges (pronounced by locals as Gah-ng-Gah with a hard G) which is of course, the Holiest river for Hindus. The river is lined with numerous Ghats - steep staircases leading up from the water where worshippers can come down to the water to bathe, taste some holy water, wash their clothes, play and even take swimming lessons. There are two 'burning ghats' where bodies are cremated right along the water's edge. Sometimes when walking in the maze of the old town you will hear male voices chanting, coming closer and closer to you with every word. Take this as a cue to step respectfully aside, as soon you will be passed by a parade of men carrying a dead body shrowded in indian fabrics and sprinkled with flowers. This body is on it's way to a burning ghat to be cremated and subsequently released from reincarnation. And no, there are no women in this parade - they are not allowed to attend their loved one's ceremony because they get too emotional... and crying is not respectful at cremation.

If you are one of 5 "Holy people", you have the extreme honour of being sunk in the river Ganges instead of cremated. I can't remember all of them, but they include Sadus (Hindu Holy Men - one of the highest castes of the Hindu Caste System), children, and pregnant women (because they are with child). The body is wrapped in cloth, then taken out on a boat, anchored, and sunk to the river floor. Yes, this is the same water you get your swimming lessons in and brush your teeth with.

We took both a sunrise and sunset rowboat along the Ganges to view the ghats from the water, including cremations. Sometimes the weights come off the bodies that have been sunk and they resurface... we were lucky enough (yes I said lucky) to see one float right by our boat. It was disturbing at first... but being in Varanasi you are on their turf, and weirdly enough, after a split second of shock it felt normal to me to see a corpse floating along in the water.

Across the river from the old town, we docked our boat and walked along the sand where the river dries up during the dry season. Interestingly, you can see...and smell human remains that had been sunk during the monsoons when the water levels are higher. I saw what I assume was a lower leg, a very decomposed body floating near the shore (still wrapped in fabric thank goodness), and numerous pieces of fabric partially buried in the sand. It really hits home that these are people. Each of them a person with a soul, a life and a family and maybe even a puppy.

What really confuses me about this whole 'thing' (for lack of a better word???) is this:

Hindus are some of the most ritualistic and devoted followers of any religion that I have witnessed in my lifetime thus far. They spend countless hours performing blessings, giving offerings to their temples or personal shrines, and participating in Pujas (celebrations with music led by local Sadus). In Varanasi they put on 2 enormous Pujas EVERY NIGHT. You wouldn't believe this thing, it's complete with fire, thrown flower petals, sea shell horns, songs, drums, rituals and thousands of people. Every. Night.

Now, the number of hours each individual spends with their faith is astronomical. All of this to increase their Karma for the next life and ultimately in hopes of being released from the cycle of reincarnation. I greatly respect this. It's truly unbelievable to witness the devotion.

However, if you die in Varanasi, or spread your ashes here in the Ganges, or get sunk to the depths of the Ganges, you are released from reincarnation. Just like that. You could have murdered 12 people (yes we asked this question) the day before your death. But still... you would be given the greatest reward in Hinduism.

I think I need to do more personal research here, because it just seems too easy and too good to be true. But this is what we learned here in Varanasi, among the chants of men carrying their loved ones through the ancient streets, among the smell of burning and rotting flesh, and among the sounds of children playing in the dangerously septic water.

Anyway, this has by far been the hardest city to describe, and the pictures can never do it justice. I only hope everyone will make a point to visit Varanasi to experience this incredible city for themselves. Favorite city in the world. By. Far.