Varanasi is chaotic, fascinating and unique. It’s located along the Ganges, the river sacred to Hindus and is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. The city is crowded with people, animals and vehicles. Even the buildings seem to huddle together like old men sharing secrets. Traffic defies understanding and leaves your head spinning.
In Varanasi, the Ganges is lined with broad stairs called Ghats that give people access the water. Each Ghat is associated with a temple. The Ghats teem with activity, people bathe and pay homage to the Ganges, others stroll or sit watching the river flow by, some do their laundry, kids play cricket (yes, on the stairs) and tourists gawk and take photos. From time to time, you come across a westerner dressed in Hindu robes who seems to have come here long ago to find himself – more or less successfully.
At the two extremities are the burning Ghats where Hindus cremate their dead. The cremations go on 24 hours a day. The Hindus here have the practice of cremating their lost loved ones as soon as possible after their death. At least three times during our stay we saw groups of young men running through the narrow streets chanting and carrying a shrouded body on a litter on their shoulders. They were headed to the burning Ghats. Only the men accompany the body, it’s believed that women and children can get too emotional.
It takes 300 kg of wood to cremate a body, the wood can be purchased on site. Registration of the deceased occurs at checkpoints near the Ghats and priests assign the location. Everything happens very quickly.
We headed to the riverbank by bicycle rickshaw shortly after arriving in Varanasi.
Our group took a boat out onto the river at the end of the day. From the serenity of the river, we watched the feverish activity on shore. At sunset, many temples perform a ceremony called Ganga Arti to pay homage to the sacred river. Thousands gather to watch from the shore and from boats on the river. We joined hundreds of boats at the Dashashvamedh Temple Ghat.
People chanted hymns and rang bells while seven flashily-dressed priests performed their choreographed ceremony as darkness settled on the city, loudspeakers broadcasting their chants. There’s a joyous atmosphere. On the water, young vendors hop from boat to boat offering chai, snacks and flowers.
According to Raja, all the boats around us held tourists; one even had official-looking people sitting on plastic lawn chairs surrounded my armed military personnel.