Varanasi one of the oldest cities in the world and one of the few to be untouched by the British rule in India. It is most famous for the hundreds of ghats (sets of steps that lead down to the Ganges River) that line the shore and are where most of the action in town is. The Ganges is also believed to have healing and purification powers and people from all over the world trek to this holy city to bathe themselves, drink from the river, clean their clothes in it and even burn their dead on special “burning ghats.” However, between all the human waste and the chemical plants upriver, the Ganges is one of the dirties rivers in the world and probably does far more harm than good to those who allow it to enter their bodies.
As for our stay in Varanasi, despite another serious case of Delhi Belly for yours truly we still managed to get a feel for the city. Our first night we got a tour of the ghats closest to our hotel including a stop at the main burning ghat, which is always full of funeral pyres are. I can say it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Imagine a hill with thousands of pounds of wood stockpiled at the top of it. Just below is an area for funerals and body preparation that is usually filled with people. Then there is a flat walkway and below that the hill continues, now covered in dirt and funereal pyres, and ends in the Ganges.
At any given time there are at least a couple of bodies burning and multiple funerals going on side by side. We watched an entire funeral that began with friends and family circling the body (covered with beautiful sheets and holy flowers) at the top of the hill, then bringing it down next to the pyre on the lower hill.
Once the body is ready to be placed on the pyre, the direct family circles the body, blesses it and places it on the pyre. The eldest brother is usually the one who lights the fire. Looking at the whole ghat you can see heads, feet and other random burning body parts hanging out or in the middle of the pyre. It’s amazing to think that the entire human experience is reduced to the shrived up corpse or the ash that remains. The whole thing was a powerful experience.
We then walked up further where men were performing a “puja,” which is essentially a prayer. Traditionally, a puja can be any type of prayer to a Hindu God and can be performed simply at home or wherever the person desires. At a temple, one only needs to walk around it three times, but on the bank of the Ganges they tourist-ized it put on a whole show. Check out the video as words can’t do it justice.
The next day we walked up the riverside for a couple of hours watching as countless people bathed and washed their clothes in the Ganges. Many were also drinking the water or putting it in their mouths and spitting it out. At the main ghat we stopped and I joined countless tourists and got a full body massage from one of the locals. I didn’t want to think about how dirty his hands were or about all the tourists who stopped to watch and take photos, but it was 45 minutes long, cost $2.50 and was quite a way to have my first ever “professional” massage.
Throughout our walk down the ghats, we also were treated to the annual kite festival. If you have ever read the novel Kite Runner, you have an idea of what is involved. Essentially, thousands of kids and adults fly kites and try to collect as many downed ones as they can. This can be in the form of wrapping your string around another kite’s string and breaking it or finding ones on the ground or rooftop.
Some people also participate with special kite strings covered in liquid glass that cut through the other kites’ strings…or the flyer’s hands. This, however, is more rare in Varanasi and we did not actually witness it. What we did see was the sky painted with the colors of scores of dancing kites, all moving in their own unique path. Check out this great video Carrie took of the kites.
The rest of our time in the city was spent wandering around exploring, waiting for me to be in little enough pain to move and relaxing in our dingy hotel room with the thinnest mattresses on earth. Our final activity was a boat tour of the Ganges that gave us an amazing and completely different view of the Ghats. It was a totally different experience looking at them head on and not being enveloped by the hoards of people selling things as we walked through it. Quite a peaceful final activity…check out in this video.