Enticed by the Flames – Varanasi, India – Part 1


February 3, 2017

Varanasi will incite you. Coming here throws you into another universe and it seems an impossibility to visit this place and not be provoked on some level, which if you are paying attention is an excellent opportunity to expand your current perspective and  look at the world with greater objectivity. Varanasi is beyond intense and terribly chaotic, and yet the fervent religious practices and pervasive spirituality along with the vast array of visual stimulation here creates, for me at least, a strange sense of order and enticement amidst all the bedlam. Or at least there are moments.

From my hotel, the ancient Hindu temple.
From my hotel, the ancient Hindu temple and Manikurnika Ghat.
A peaceful moment at sunrise.
A peaceful moment at sunrise.

Varanasi can be broken down into two main parts: the incredibly complicated and haphazardly non-sensical maze of narrow alleyways that comprise Old Town, and the long string of ghats: individual large, wide river-front promenades and their connected stairs that lead down to the Ganges for the entire length of the city.

Morning prayers
Morning prayers in the ghat
Solitary contemplation
Solitary contemplation

Old Town is full of what feels like pure chaos… an overpopulated swell of endless human and animal bustle tucked inside claustrophobically tight and narrow passageways that go on for miles with absolutely no rhyme or reason to their construction. By contrast, the ghats, which are no less busy, at least open themselves up on to the wide river and have some vague sense of rhythm and order to their non-stop movement.

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But both areas will overstimulate each and every one of your senses and if I thought some of the other places I’ve been to in India were intense, I see now that they were just preparation for this extreme locale.

Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in India and THE holiest city for Hindus. People from all over the country come here to worship the sacred Ganga Mata, mother Ganges, but the most sacred pilgrimage is the journey made by Hindu families to cremate their loved ones on the banks of the holy river after their death.

Each ghat that lines the Western bank of the river has its own significance. Some are connected to temples, others are strictly for bathing or washing, some for prayers or peaceful contemplation, and the three most important ghats of the city are for the sacred ritual of burning deceased bodies in order to purify their souls so they can peacefully move on to the next realm.

Wood for sale
Wood for sale

Our hotel is situated near Manikurnika, the largest of the “burning ghats” and from our vantage point nearby, I watch the never ending activity that comes with the ritual of cremation. The connected ghat alongside Manikurnika, which is directly below us, sees continuous rites being performed by male family members which include chanting and bathing in the holy water to cleanse themselves before partaking in the burning ritual. Women do not participate in this particular ritual and I see them as they sit on the steps and watch from afar. While it is not part of the custom for them to participate here, I am guessing they have many a ritual of their own that goes on behind closed doors.

From the reprieve that is my hotel balcony several stories up, I take in the perpetual activity on the ghats below and contemplate the vast number of stories playing out before me at once. Boats come and go, offerings are made and vendors make sure you have all the accoutrements you need to pay homage to the great Mother Ganges. I take it all in with great fascination, however the only part I simply cannot rectify is the ritual drinking of what is literally one of the most polluted bodies of water on earth. Forgetting soaps, sewage and other forms of garbage that end up here, the ashes of cremation are ceremoniously deposited directly into the river and for the worst-case scenario of poor who cannot afford even partial cremation, to release your loved one into the river is the least you can do to insure their proper path toward enlightenment.

From the platform of the burning ghat itself, bells and chimes toll continuously as part of the actual cremation ceremony, and at any given time several different fires release smoke and flames into the air, feeding the thick mix of foggy mist and pollution, giving the entire scene an appropriately mystical feel.

Cremations take place 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and it is estimated that about 200 bodies are burned per day. The bodies are wrapped off-site somewhere in bright and festive material and then marched with great ceremony to the waterfront of the ghat where they are placed for a brief time in the river for their final “cleansing” before being put to the fire.

Funeral procession toward Manikurnika
Funeral procession toward Manikurnika
Family members carrying the body toward the fire.
Family members carrying the body toward the fire.

Several platforms exist on the burning ghat and where you will be cremated depends upon the caste into which you were born. Meanwhile, as is the case everywhere in this country, the sacred cows wander at their leisure, taking up space as they deem necessary, so it should be no surprise to me when I see that here too, even amidst the burnt remains and hot ashes, they meander about with no agenda.

While the family members are very active in taking part in the rituals leading up to the actual cremation, it is considered sinful and unclean to touch the dead, therefore the task of handling the body and setting it up onto the pyre falls on the members of the lowest caste in India called “the untouchables.”

As with every culture around the world, death is big business and ironically many of the “untouchable” caste earn a very comfortable living doing this work no one else is allowed to do.

Offerings for sale.
Offerings for sale.
As seen from the river, several fires burning at once.
As seen from the river, several fires burning at once.

I realize that for many, this entire process seems very morbid, but personally I found a beautiful fascination in it as I do with most of the ancient rituals in this country. I am inexplicably drawn to the idea of purification through fire because of the transformation it represents, and it is with great reverence that I watch the complex Hindu process around dying. Death, after all,   is but an inevitable part of life and the biggest representation of impermanence, reminding us that ultimately, life is only what we choose to make of it.

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