Varanasi is one of the seven holy cities and the oldest living city in the world. The Ganges is the largest river in India and the most sacred to Hindus.
Sunrises and sunsets are not quiet by the river. There are crowds, it’s noisy and, of course, a lot of hassling but all with many, many smiles.
Every day, hundreds of people go about their ritual washing, swim or take swimming lessons, do laundry, socialise, catch fish, send offerings and pray and chant. There are hundreds of boats on the river with tourists and pilgrims just to watch the sunrise and sunset. Pilgrims spend entire days on the banks of the Ganges.
There is an incredible spiritual atmosphere which I haven’t encountered anywhere else before. Entire families come down every morning to bathe. The oldest generation gets into the water very slowly, often chanting while the young ones jump in, singing popular songs and laughing, clearly being happy with the start of their day by the river. There is so much happening every day by the river, it is gets addictive walking up and down the entire length of the old city just people watching. The only thing that prevented us was the midday sun. Harsh and very hot.
It seems that all life happens by the river.
On the banks of the Ganges there are nearly 100 ghats (stairs leading down to the holy river) and two main ghats for cremations. The main one is Manikarnika Ghat where up to 300 cremations a day at all hours of the day take place.
It is considered ‘lucky’ to die in Varanasi. Varanasi is the place where many Hindus come to die and their last wish/desire is to be cremated and have their ashes thrown into the Ganges. The Hindus believe that it gives them instant salvation.
We saw burning corpses at Manikarnika Ghat, some corpses floating by on the river, and washed ashore body parts being picked at by dogs. All part of cycle of life in Varanasi. It definitely shook up me out of my comfort zone.
However, not everyone can be cremated: holy men, pregnant women, children, those who died from snake bites or committed suicide or were just too poor. Their bodies are lowered in the holy water of the Ganges.
A cautionary tale: On our first morning after walking up and down the banks of the Ganges for several hot hours, Boris and I decided that it was time for a break. Masala chai break of course!
Without much thinking (we were exhausted) we chose one of the most picturesque Ghats and sat down at a nearby tea stall. We relaxed, watched people and sipped probably the weirdest tasting tea ever. We couldn’t make out the spices and weren’t sure if there was even any tea in it. It tasted wrong. After several sips I decided that I really didn’t like it and stopped drinking, Boris bravely (not wanting to offend the Chai Wallah) finished his. Later when we met with Maciej and recounted our morning he immediately asked a seemingly random question: where do you think they get their water from? Obviously: …the river.. I don’t know why I assumed that they went up and down all the steep stairs with 5liter bottles of fresh water instead of 10meters down to the river. Luckily, I have stomach of steel and there were no bad after-effects, but the thought of drinking tea made with the same water where human corpses, animal caresses and a city’s worth of rubbish still makes me shudder. Lesson learnt. The subsequent mornings we all bought bottles of soft drink instead.
So, my advice: don’t drink tea by the river.
Out of respect I did not photographed floating bodies, part of corpses mixed with rubbish on the edge of the water, cremations in progress, people in mourning, pollution in Ganga, begging, homeless children, and many obvious sights of poverty.