Varanasi is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and is also regarded as one of the holiest cities. Also Buddhism has found his development here. And like Varanasi, the river the Ganges which streams next to the city, is the most sacred river to Hindus.
Walking next to the Ganges you will find several Ghats (series of steps leading down to the river) where all the action is. Varanasi has about 90 of these Ghats. The most colorful and busiest Ghat must be Dasaswamedh Ghat, where they perform a Ganga Aarti ceremony, every evening around 7 pm. You will find some young priest, starting a rhythmic chant of mantras with a lamp or fire in their hands. Besides the washing and holy Gaths there are also two cremation Ghats, the most famous and biggest one is called Marnikarnika Ghat. When walking down the Ganges you will see lots of Holy men (Sadhu) who choose to live poorly and only find richness in spirit and humanity.
Coming from Khajuraho on a Friday, we took the night train. First a 20 minute tuktuk ride from the hotel to the train station for 150 Rupees. We managed to get hold on a sleeperticket for 770 rupees. This amount was including the commisionfee of the travel agent (150 Rupees) and gives you 2 beds. Train arrives around 23.30 pm and 20 minutes later. We got lucky because nobody else stayed in our cabin, so we had al the space for ourselves. It is cold and the beds are a bit hard, but for this price it is a pretty good deal. We arrived in Varanasi at 12 pm and only had to walk 2 minutes to our hotel from the railway station.
Hotel City Inn is on the other side of the train station and therefor perfect for us when we arrived. We were tired after a long train ride and happy to be able to take a shower and have rest. The rooms are clean, quite spacious and the bathrooms even have a bathtub. It's a big hotel and mostly used by big tour groups and Indian tourists. There is a restaurant which serves pretty good food and they even bring it to your room. That's what we did a few times since the restaurant isn't really cosy. They have a breakfast buffet in the morning which is decent and up to Western standards. From here, it's a 5-10 minute tuktuk ride to the Ganges.
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The Diamond Hotel is really centrally located. It’s at walking distance from the Ghats which is the reason why people come to Varanasi. The rooms are light and clean and have a homy feeling. The beds are comfortable, the shower is strong and warm and the people are really friendly. It's a smaller hotel with we like. Breakfast is served in a small created breakfast room in the lobby and it's nothing really special but good enough to get you started.
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The main reason for visiting Varanasi was to witness the cremating of the people next to the Ganges. A typical Hindi traditional that is so completely different from everything we know in the Western world. We spent quite some hours, just looking at the fires, the people, their traditions and tried to understand what was going on, at the several Ghats at the Ganges.
We’ll try to explain.. Once you are really sick, and know you are going to die within a short time, your family will bring you to Varanasi. There are houses next to the Ganges where people can lay down and literally just wait to die. They belief, that it is best to get cremated within 24 hours after you die. If you live to far away, your family will cremate you in your own town, and bring your ashes to the Ganges.
The cremation at the Ganges is really something special. When you walk up there, there are little fire pits everywhere. Depending on the Cast, you will be burned right next to the Ganges (lower Cast) or a bit higher (higher Cast). There are huge piles of wood which can be bought per kilo, and you do need some kilos. You’ll notice when a poor family is burning their relative, because the body is hardly covered with wood. Then there are some rituals. When the father dies, the oldest son has to shave his head en will wear white. When the mother dies, it's the youngest son. All around the ghat you’ll find improvised barbershops to do this.
Before the cremation starts, the body is put in the holy water of the Ganges to get ‘washed’. They don’t really wash them but they believe the water is purifying. After the ‘washing’, the body is left to dry up a bit and in the meanwhile the fire pit gets prepared. Once all of this is done, the cremation ceremony starts. The body is put ont he wood and the men that are attending the cremation, walk around the body 5 times (5 times because of the 5 elements). They use sandalwood powder and butter against the smell and the fire is lit with the eternal flame. The body is covered with white and orange sheets but you can still clearly see the head and sometimes the feed by the shapes. A bit bizar. After one hour, a bamboo stick is used to slam a hole in the skull to release the spirit from the body. After another 2 more hours, the cremation is over. They get out the chest bone when the deceased is a man, and the hipbone if it’s a woman (because these don't burn) and throw it into the Ganges. Next, and last, thing is to throw a pot filled with water over the shoulder and walk away, without looking back anymore. The deceased is now free and has left to Nirvana.
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Only men attend these ceremonies because women have thrown themselves into the fire out of despair in the past. The workers clean up the ashes and wash them in the Ganges to get out any jewelry that the deceased was wearing. You will not get cremated if you are younger than 12, died in an accident, were pregnant, had lepra, were poisoned or bitten by a snake. They tie rocks to these bodies and throw them into the Ganges. We’ve heard different reasons: one says it because they are not finished with the reincarnation. Someone else said they don’t need the fire to purify their souls and bodies. Tourists are allowed to visit these burnings, but you have to show respect. You are not allowed to take photos for example, unless apparently when you’re in a boat watching it, or far away from the actual burning spot. The 'rules' are a bit strange.
Another typical thing about these Ghats, is that there are cows, goats and dogs walking around between these fires. You’ll even see small children playing right next to it. When you walk a bit further, away from the burnings, people are doing their laundry and washing themselves in the same water. Pilgrims and Holy Men come to the Ganges to wash themselves in the holy water. And this is water we wouldn’t even put our toes in as it is one of the most polluted rivers of the world..
But the Ganges is nice and quiet to, for as far as that’s possible in North India. You have the feeling you can breathe here. Which isn’t the case in the city itself. But it is really confronting to see all the poor people here. We’ve been sort of getting used to beggars and the sight of people living on the street, but it got to us here. Especially when attending the light ceremonies at night, it looks like everybody want something of you. Varanasi is a special place and we were glad we visited it. We won’t forget this experience, that’s for sure.