My first stop in India was Kolkata/Calcutta. It's a difficult place for tourists, which I experienced first hand. I should dedicate an entire blog post for it, but I would rather focus on more exciting and beautiful things. . . like Varanasi.
I wish I had more time to explore and enjoy Varanasi, but being in the country with a 30 day e-visa, I had to stay on the move. The parasites that I had accumulated in Vietnam made me tired and fatigued. My ability to walk around in India's heat was limited. Carrying my heavy camera was out of the question because of my muscle weakness, so photos during the evening ghat tour are my only documentation of this beautiful city. Granted, they are stunning, it doesn't capture the charming narrow alley streets with scattered vendor shops around every corner. There is a nestled feel, shaded from the hot sun. One afternoon, I wandered into different shops to find Kurti's with a girl from my hostel.
Here are some photo pictures:
My favorite food in Varanasi was Kerala Cafe, a restaurant nearby to the hostel which offered the most delicious southern Indian food. The Masala Dosa and Raw Onion Uttapams were the most popular, and worth several trips! A solid meal for $1. Below on the left, I split each with my friend.
On the right, a Rose flavored lassi. It was the most intensely rich and flavorful lassi of my life. Obviously it was too good that I almost forgot to take a photo before it was gone!
Varanasi, or Benaras, is one of the oldest cities in the world, and the oldest in India. It's a place of pilgrimage. The Ganges river is viewed as holy, and people bath regularly in the water, as it's thought to wash impurities and sins from the body. Additionally, in the Hindu tradition, it's believed that if one dies in Varanasi along the Ganges river, their soul will attain moksha, or the liberation of the cycle of rebirths. There are facilities on the cremation ghat grounds for people to stay who know they will be dying soon. It's best to burn a body within 24 hours of death.
Varanasi has 88 ghats along the Ganges, but only two cremation ghats. The Harishchandra Ghat is a smaller site in the south side of the city, and the Manikarnika Ghat is the northern and larger site, responsible for 2/3 of the cremations in the city. Both are actively processing bodies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week! I chose to take the sunset ghat tour to see and experience the cremations.
In respect for the families attending the cremations, photography wasn't allowed once our boat got close enough. I was able to capture some of the activities. Clusters of tourist boats stalled close to the shore of the cremation ghat, and it felt strange being onlookers to such sacred and sensitive rituals.
- When bodies arrive, they receive a number for queue. They can be seen covered in orange or red, and carried to the waters to be dipped in the Ganges to be blessed by the God water and divine mother.
- They return to the stairs to dry the body for 2 hours, and wait for an open spot.
- A male family member, closest to the deceased, wears all white, shaves his head and facial hair, and helps to light the first flame.
- Each body takes approximately 4-6 hours to burn. They used to have certain areas for each caste, the higher caste had spots up on the hill, and the lower castes were burned near the water. Because of the time required to vacate appropriate area, they have since removed that rule.
- Once the bodies have been burned, the red cloth under the bodies with ashes are cleaned in the river, and filtered for the gold jewelry and gemstones on the body. It's thought to be disrespectful to remove them from the body before being cremated.
A few interesting notes:
- Because of the sandalwood for burning, there isn't a horrific stench in the air like one would expect. I was pleasantly surprised!
- Women are prohibited from the cremation site because if they cry, it's believed that the soul will not want to leave when someone is still grieving over them.
- The bodies cost 12,000 rupees ($185) to cremate.
- There are certain people who cannot be burned: Children under 8, pregnant women, prostitutes, and anyone bit by a snake. Those bodies are taken to deeper parts of the river and tossed into the river with a grounding stone. Fish and other creatures help disintegrate the body. Though some people talk about bodies floating back to shore. I'm glad I never saw that.
- The lowest caste, the untouchables, are responsible for processing the bodies. Though some have created substantial wealth because of the monopoly on the job that nobody else wants to do! Touching a dead body is considered contagious.
If you are interested in more details and up-close photos, you can read more here
After the cremation portion of the tour, the boat joined everyone else on the water for the evening arti. Though a bit far to see anything, being part of a web of boats, having vendors crossing in and out, and the community aspect made for an other-worldly experience.