Varanasi


We spent two more nights in Rishikesh before catching a 24-hour sleeper train to Varanasi - India's holiest city, and one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities. The train wasn't as bad as it sounds, as we had plenty of podcasts, books, and snacks to keep us entertained during the long ride. The people on the train were lovely, sharing their snacks and engaging in conversations.

We arrived to Varanasi and I braced myself for an intense experience. If you've heard anything about Varanasi, you'll know what I'm talking about: the burning ghats. Yesterday, we walked along the Ganges and happened upon this sight. The first thing I saw was two black feet sticking out of a flaming pyre, the smell of burnt flesh and cannabis wafting around burning ash.

Hindus believe that if you die and are cremated in Varanasi, you escape the cycle of reincarnation, and attain moksha - liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth. Thus, many people come to Varanasi to die. There is a hospice right by the Ganges where the elderly and terminally ill come to await their death. Around 250 to 300 recently deceased are cremated here, out in the open by the Ganges, every single day. The corpses are handled by the untouchables, a low caste called doms, whose entire job it is to burn these bodies. It's an awful job - terribly hot, breathing in ash daily, burning the bodies in the smoldering heat.

Family members dress in white to see the cremation. First, the corpses are bathed in the water of the Ganges, to purify the bodies. They wait for the bodies to dry, and then stack the bodies, which are wrapped in holy cloth, on wood. The wood is expensive, and the higher castes buy more expensive wood, like sandalwood, to burn their dead. The poor rely on donations of wood from visitors to the ghats, and Shelby and I each contributed a kilogram of wood (nearly ten dollars each, which is incredibly expensive in India).

The lower caste bodies are burned right by the Ganges, whereas the high caste bodies - those of the Brahmins - are burned in a temple which looks over the Ganges, about 15 meters above. The family members start the pyre fire with long blades of a special grass, and they light this grass from a burning fire that has been continuously burning for 3,500 years. The same family has kept this fire burning since its inception over generations.

After about two hours in the fire, the bodies soften, and the eldest son of the recently deceased must crack the skull of the recently deceased, to liberate their soul. After three hours, the body is entirely burned, except that the men's chest, and the women's hips, remain relatively intact. These remains are thrown in the Ganges, along with the jewelry that the deceased were wearing when cremated. Nearby, men sift through the Ganges to find this jewelry - nose rings, ear rings, necklaces - and sell it at nearby markets. This is their livelihood. Dogs, wading in the holy river, find the bones and eat them. It is believed that the energy of the dead gives them strength. Cows meander through the trash and the smoke of the burning ash, and holy men smoke marijuana as they observe the burning bodies (it's legal here in Varanasi, as it has spiritual associations for Hindu mystics).

Some bodies, however, are already considered purified, so they are not burned: those who died of a snake bite, children, pregnant women, and those who have committed suicide. These bodies are instead weighted down and sunk into the Ganges.

This is by far the most intense, strange, serious experience I have ever been a part of. The most intimate ritual of life and death played out before our eyes. All day, I couldn't help but think about the human experience, and question everything I knew. It's something indescribable to see this in person, and I will never forget it.

Seeing a burning ghat was the most dramatic experience we had in Varanasi, but I have also included some pictures of other sites in the city - India's oldest, and surely one of the world's most unique.