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The Funeral Pyres On The Ghat At Night - Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

India: Varanasi – Life along the Ganges River

About Varanasi

The holy city of Varanasi goes by several names including Benaras and Kashi. Indians like to have multiple names for their important cities (some of this was done when the colonial names were shed!). The city is old, really old, and is widely believed to be one of the oldest living cities in the world – its origins as a centre of learning and civilisation stretching back over 3000 years. Author Mark Twain was fascinated by the legend of Varanasi and once wrote: “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together. ”

The heart of Varanasi is the most sacred of rivers, the Ganges. According to Hindu legend, Lord Shiva unleashed the Ganges from the knot of his hair. For centuries, its rich floods lent fertility to the soil of the central Gangetic plains, which nourished some of India’s most prominent ancient civilizations.

Varanasi’s legends go back some 10,000 years, to the oldest epics of Hindu literature, including the Puranas, the Vedas and the Mahabharata. They say Varanasi is the city of Lord Shiva, who walked here with his wife Parvati at the beginning of time. It could also be the battlefield where the god Krishna set fire to a duplicate but imposter Krishna, or the place where the Lord Rama came to do penance after slaying the demon Ravana. Of course, none of these myths and legends can’t be proved but they suffice to draw millions of Hindu devotees to this ancient city every year to bathe in the Ganges which they believe has the power to wash away the sins of mortals. Some come here just to die. Hindus believe that one who is graced to die in Varanasi would attain salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and re-birth.

The area surrounding Varanasi is not just important to Hindus it also has significant symbolism to other faiths. Sarnath, the place where Buddha preached his first sermon after enlightenment, just 10 km away and it is also a pilgrimage centre for Jains, as Varanasi is believed to be the birthplace of Parsvanath, the twenty-third Tirthankar.

Considering its theological significance it is not so surprising that Varanasi has also become a centre of learning, health and the arts. For example, it is home Benares Hindu University, the biggest University in Asia and Ayurvedic medicine is believed to have originated here. 

Varanasi is also famous for its trade and commerce, especially for the manufacture of the finest silks and gold and silver brocades.

1. LIFE ON THE GANGES

We visited Varanasi with little knowledge beyond what we had seen on television or read in books. Nothing can really prepare you for the real-life experience. On the negative side, it is one of the nosiest, busiest and dirtiest places we have ever visited – and this does put some people off from visiting. But, it is a truly fascinating and amazing place that will overload all your senses with the variety of experiences that surround you wherever you go in this incredible city. We highly recommend putting Varanasi on your travel plans in India.

This blog article gives you a snippet of our experiences on the sacred river Ganges and the along the ghats of Varanasi that border it.

Karen standing on one of the many ghats that line the Ganges in Varanasi

2. CREMATIONS ON THE GHATS 

I had seen quite a few documentaries on Varanasi and many of the enduring memories I had of these shows was where they showed the cremations that happen on the ghats of Varanasi. For some folks visiting the city this could be upsetting – but when you are here it is almost impossible to miss.

Shortly after arriving at our hotel and grabbing some food, we headed out along the river, where it is possible to walk for four and a half miles. Not long after leaving, we came to one of the Ghats where the Hindus cremate their dead. Coming from a culture where putting your loved ones on what is essentially a bonfire (in fact some looked more like barbeques) it felt a very alien practice.

Just as we arrived we saw a group of men carrying a body on a stretcher down to the area where the cremations took place. We had not been there more than an hour or so and we were already being confronted with a dead body, which did make us feel a bit awkward. Although we were carrying our cameras, it didn’t seem appropriate to take pictures (the family were taking pictures as though it were a wedding), but nonetheless, a tiny man approached us and told us to be respectful and not take any photos. He took us to one side and started to tell us about the ritual itself.

A body, in the orange shroud, being carried on the shoulders of their family to the funeral pyre
Friends and family gather for the cremations on the ghats of Varanasi

For the Hindus, Varanasi is very special, and many hope to spend their final days and hours in the city, so they can have their cremation by the Ganges and their ashes cast in the river. The cremations take place within hours of the person’s death. As we had observed the bodies are carried down to the river, by an all-male wedding cortege (apparently women get too emotional), their bodies wrapped in white cloth, a simple garland around their necks and covered with a brightly covered drape. The bodies are washed in the water of the Ganges and are carried back and placed on the funeral pyre. The chief mourner will be the older son in the case of the father or the youngest son in the case of the mother if there are no sons, other rules apply. He has his head shaved and wears a simple white robe. They perform the rites of washing the body and setting the fire on the pyre. Everyone hangs around until the body is fully burnt, which can take three or four hours, at which time ashes are taken and cast into the Ganges along with a major bone which has not been consumed in the fire. In the case of a woman this would be a hip bone and in the case of a man his sternum. After this, there is then a process of mourning.

We learnt that there are groups of people who are considered to be already spiritually clean and therefore do not require to be cremated. This includes pregnant women, holy men, children under two, lepers and those who die of snake bites. Instead of cremation these people are weighted down and dropped into the Ganges. The cremations in Varanasi take place 24 hours a day and total somewhere in the order of 200 each day.

Our new friend also explained that his family was a member of a caste, the Doms, that is responsible for maintaining the cremation grounds and the holy fire that was used to light the pyres. This fire has been maintained for thousands of years and it is only this fire that the Hindus believe can be used to light a pyre. The Doms make their living from death and cremation, charging families for their services. They are considered as Untouchables, but everyone, even the rich, wanting to use the cremation grounds and the sacred fire has to employ their services.

The piles of wood stacked for the cremations
The wood stacks are found everywhere
Different types of quality of wood are available at variable prices
There are shops selling just paraphenalia for funerals

One of the most spectacular sights is to travel down to the cremation ghats on the Ganges after night falls.

Our evening plans were an official tour, consisting of a boat ride on the river Ganges, followed by dinner. We were met by our guide around dusk and taken down the Ghat below our hotel and onto our boat. This was not a motor-powered boat, but instead was propelled by a young man with a set of oars that looked cobbled together with bits of driftwood, but they worked fine. We travelled down the river to the main cremation ground where about 15 cremations were in progress. We watched the rituals in complete fascination. The ceremonies were at various stages, we saw one body being washed, another pyre being set and others in full flame. One cremation had completed its cycle and the chief mourner collected what looked like a hip bone, walked down to the river and cast it into the water.

Setting out at dusk on our boat tour along the Ganges in Varanasi
BrijRama Palace- A Heritage Hotel on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi
The funeral pyres on the ghat at night

We set off down the river to watch the Aarti, a religious ceremony held nightly at the Dashashwamedh Ghat. Before setting out on our trip we had bought some candles set in a cup of leaves from one of the small children hawking on the Ghat below the hotel. As we travelled towards the Aarti, we joined the nightly ritual of lighting the candles and casting the little leaf rafts out onto the river as a tribute to family and friends struggling with illness. This was a truly profound spiritual moment.

Our lit leaf rafts ready for launch

3. WATCH THE AARTI, A SPECTACULAR DAILY RELIGIOUS CEREMONY

The Aarti is a daily ceremony that takes place after dark at Dashashwamedh Ghat. Many people chose to watch the Aarti from boats on the Ganges, which is what we did on our first night in Varanasi. 

By the time we arrived the waters around Dashashwamedh Ghat were packed with boats full of tourists and pilgrims. The Ganga Aarti is a colourful ceremony that pays homage to Lord Shiva. The Aarti is performed by seven young priests who are pursuing their Vedas and Upanishads. The priests stood on a highly decorated platform and follow a highly choreographed ceremony involving mantra chants, conch blowing, incense and a seven-layered camphor lamp (something resembling an inverted chandelier with flames). The whole thing lasted 45 minutes and was fascinating to watch.

Equally fascinating was to watch the people and boats around us, it was somewhat chaotic as boats shuffled positions to get the best views, and at the same time, young men leapt, risking life and limb, from boat to boat trying to sell trinkets to the passengers. When all was done the armada of vessels set off in every direction, through which our oarsmen skillfully navigated our safe passage back to the hotel.

Boats full of tourists and Hindu devotees pack along Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi to watch the Ganga Aarti
Dozens of boats float on the river Ganges to watch the evening Aarti ceremony in Varanasi
The opportunistic vendors selling their goods from boat to boat before the Aarti in Varanasi
The Ganga Aarti ceremony begins
The sychronised ritual of the Aarti enacted by 7 priests in Varanasi
The Aarti is very atmospheric with the light, smoke and flames that appear during the ceremony

A different experience is to watch the Aarti onshore, which is what we did on our last night in Varanasi.

The walk to the site to Aarti was only a short stroll from our hotel and we arrived in plenty of time to get a prime place on the steps of the Ghat. Once settled in, we spent our time people watching. Viewing the Aarti close up was a very different experience to watching from a boat on the river. This was a more intimate experience and we were able to observe more of the detail and intricacies of the ceremony. The procedural sequences were well-rehearsed, with the four priests (one who remarkably looked like Jon Snow – a.k.a Kit Harrington – from the “Game of Thrones” TV series) synchronously moving through the various phases – it was truly mesmerizing, and the forty-five minutes passed by so quickly.

A holy man at the Ganga Aarti in Varanasi
People waiting for the start of the Aarti
The Aarti Ganga commences
The air is filled with smoke and the smell of incense
This particular priest bore a resemblance to Kit Harrington (aka Jon Snow from Game of thrones)
People dispersing after the Aarti
A group sitting on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi
Karen still pumped from watching the Aarti
A holy bin

4. TAKE AN EARLY MORNING BOAT RIDE TO OBSERVE THE DEVOTEES BATHING IN THE GANGES

Sometimes watching people going about their daily business can feel obtrusive and awkward so I was a little unsure of the prospect of taking a boat down the river in the morning to watch Hindu devotees bathe in the Ganges. But it was incredibly interesting and I soon forgot any discomfort I might have felt.

When we rose and looked out of the window all we could see was a thick blanket of fog; our view of the Ganges, only a hundred feet or so away, had disappeared overnight. The plan for the morning was another boat ride on the Ganges to view the morning rituals of the devotees and pilgrims who come down daily to the river to wash in the holy waters. The prospect for this did not look great! So, after breakfast, we were surprised to see our tour guide.

We had thought the trip might get cancelled. Anyway, we headed down the river, where Karen managed to find a very slimy patch (probably a patty from a passing water buffalo moistened by the mist) to slip in and crash to the ground. It was not a great day for being wet and stinky on a boat (although the general smelly atmosphere would have covered the evidence of the fall) – so she popped back the room to change. Take 2! We went down to the dock again, being careful this time where we were treading, and boarded our little rowing boat. Casting off down the river, we travelled close to the shore as the fog still persisted! Through the gloom, we could just make out people on the Ghats bathing in the water. Although the weather was not ideal it certainly added to the atmospheric drama of the experience. After we had gone half a mile or so, the guide ordered our oarsman to take us ashore, so we continue the rest of the tour on foot.

It was a foggy start to the day and we could barely see a thing
A holyman is wrapped up against the chilly morning weather
A holy man hiding in a alcove on a foggy Varanasi morning
Bathers on the river Ganges in Varanasi
Early morning trading on the ghats of Varanasi
Weather does not stop the devotees going about their business
Bathers seem oblivious to cold and pollution of the Ganges
A boat appears in the mist on the Ganges in Varanasi

5. STROLL ALONG THE BANKS OF THE GANGES AND ENJOY SOME PEOPLE WATCHING

After a very foggy start, miraculously, the sun came out. We decided to go out and walk down the riverfront toward the main funeral Ghat, which was a couple of miles downriver. By the time we set off the weather was fabulous, and we got some great photographs of people washing their bed linen in the river and drying them on the steep banks of the Ghats, holy men and their disciples chewing the fat and various scenes of people and animals going about their daily business. Before long we had reached our destination. As expected there were several cremations in various stages of progress. We walked among the huge stacks of wood and little shops selling everything you need for a Hindu funeral. Among all this humanity, the animals of Varanasi carve out a little slice of life for themselves. Things don’t always work out for these creatures, and one example presented itself to us in the form of the tiniest, scrappiest little puppy we had ever seen. It had got lost from its family, but Karen came to the rescue, picking up the puppy and reuniting it with a mummy and group of puppies, who seemed to be thriving better (we assumed this was its family, if not hopefully it would be adopted!) As providence would have it we were about to rescue another lost soul, this time in the form of an elderly, well-spoken English lady from Devon. She was with her travel partner, also an elderly English lady, and seemed overwhelmed by all that was going on around her with the cremations taking place.

We did our second good deed for the day and guided them back to a place along the river they recognized and could navigate their way back to their hotel

Man sleeping on a warm afternoon by the Ganges in Varanasi
Adorable smiles
Smile for the camera!
Doing the washing in the Ganges - not sure I would do that.
The laundry left out to dry
A busy time on the ghats
This man has yet to catch-up with the latest in personal music systems
Colorful saris make these ladies standout
Striding with purpose
Families hang out on the banks of the Ganges
Catching up on the latest news
In deep discussion

6. LOOKOUT FOR THE HOLY MEN

(more…)
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