Of all the places on our itinerary, Varanasi was the one we thought would be the toughest. Preoccupied with thoughts of corpses floating past in the Ganges river, we touch down in the evening and book a prepaid taxi to take us to our guest house on the banks of the famous river. The airport is about an hour from the ghats, so we have some time to talk to the taxi driver. We learn that Varanasi is a big city with 10m people. We were expecting 1m tops!
Our guest house Rahul Guest House is located to the south of the main ghats like Assi Ghat, and in a Muslim area. The staff are lovely, and we’re shown to our room on the roof terrace which looks out directly over the ghats and river.
The next morning we head to our Hatha Yoga lesson with Siddharth Yoga, which was widely recommended. The studio took some finding through many twisting streets but eventually we found it - a cute little room for the teacher, us and another student right on the ghat with the river and all its activity down below us. Siddharth is incredible, he knew how far to push us before backing off and providing savasana rest breaks. Walking out in a dreamy haze, Quentin calls it as the best yoga class he’s ever had (aside from Leti’s classes of course!).
We’ve been loving the idea of taking lessons on the various Indian instruments, and today we want to try Sitar. We pick one of the many music schools we come across and are met by a wizened old twinkly eyed Sitar guru called Bhaji. He was totally brilliant, systematically teaching us how to sit and hold the Sitar and then play our first scales. It’s a lovely and unique sounding string instrument and we both leave the lesson very happy and wanting to learn more.
Cremation and the path to Nirvana
Varanasi, as one of the 7 holiest Hindu cities in the world is revered as a place to both come and wash a lifetime of sins away in the river Ganges or to cremate your loved ones. We visit the main burning ghat Manikarnika to get a sense of the ceremony. We’re apprehensive about whether we will be able to handle the sights and smells of the ceremonies.
We’re intercepted by a man who tells us not to walk down the path where the relatives are walking but shows us the tourist path which also leads to a waiting guide. The guide explains that he and his colleagues are working to ensure that the place is respected and also to help the people who come here to die that don’t have relatives to support them. Such people often can’t afford the wood to be cremated (apparently it can take 120kgs of wood to fully burn a body down) and they rely on wood purchased with donations from visitors like us. To this day we think this is a scam but there may be (some) truth in it.
He explains to us that people from all over the country bring their dead relatives to be burned down on top of stacks of firewood. The fires for the various casts/classes are located at different levels - upper for upper class and lower for the lower classes. Once burned down there is only chest bone (man) and hipbone (woman) left, which is placed in the river to be carried away and to nirvana. They do this to end the circle of life, and not be reincarnated and come back to earth - a process called Moksha.
For those who can’t afford cremation they can instead tie stones around the dead bodies of their relatives and push them out into the river to sink a little below the surface and then get carried away.
We spend a few minutes observing the process. Bodies first get washed in the Ganga. If the father is being cremated then the eldest son has the lead role, which includes getting his head shaved and lighting a hand-held bundle of sticks and grass in an ever-burning fire which has been kept going day and night by those dedicated to this holy task. He then is joined by four or so brothers or relatives who circle the body set up on the cremation pyre and then he sets it alight. If the mother is being cremated, then it’s led by the youngest son. It is surreal to witness this and actually see the head and feet of someone within the flames. We are humbled and reverently walk away.
Ganga river cruise
We find a cute little bakery called Brown Bread Bakery which has a nice rooftop as well. They also do Ganga river tours for a little less than other places. True the boat is oar rather than motor powered but that just adds to the magic for us.
We take a sunset trip and it’s great to get a new perspective on the ghats and see the steady flow of cremation ceremonies from afar. As we glide on the slow moving river we pass unidentifiable objects partially submerged in the water. Sobering thought that these are most likely dead bodies of humans or dogs on their way to Nirvana.
Every evening without fail there is the spiritual ritual called Ganga Aarti that is performed on the banks of the Ganga just after sunset. People crowd around the Dasaswamedh Ghat, on land and in boats on the river to see the spectacle. The ceremony is elaborate and intense with beating drums and music, and saffron robed young men performing intricate rituals.
Don't miss Varanasi!
We only stay for one full day, but Varanasi has captured our hearts and the intensity and vibrancy will last in our memories. We’re already looking back and considering it one of our favourite places we visited in India. If you have doubts about whether you’ll cope just put them aside and go!