During my 9 days trip to India, I had several cities in mind that I wanted to go to but I didn’t have a solid plan on which ones, when or how. I am so glad that I made it to Varanasi!
I took a 12 hours bus ride from Agra to Varanasi. It was a pleasant ride. I was at the very last row that had 5 seats in a row with 3 other backpackers so we had plenty of space.
I went to Stops Hostel and they have quickie offer for backpackers who weren’t going to spend the night. I took it for 3.50 USD because I was leaving to New Delhi the same night. I dropped my bag, and went out to explore the city.
Stops hostel is perfectly located with only couple of minutes walk from the ghat. Ghats are the steps along the Ganga river bank. There are more than 80 ghats on the stretch of about 7 km. I walked along the ghats and there were 3 ghat that I wanted to explore; the small cremation, main ghat, big cremation.
As I walked along, I noticed the ancient and unique architecture the city has. It turns out that Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world. The people believe that the city existed before history and found by Lord Shiva which makes it one of the holiest and most spiritual city for Hindus. Just like how Muslims have the two holy cities; Makkah & Madinah, Hindus have Varanasi.
The first ghat I stumbled upon was Manikarnika Ghat, the small cremation. When I got there, they were about to begin the funeral ritual, I sat there for awhile and there was a lot of discussion and nothing happened so I decided to leave and watch the ritual in the big cremation.
Walking along the ghats was such a self awakening moment. It opens up your eyes to appreciate different religion, beliefs and practices. It’s such a spiritual city that you can see many Hindu rituals from dawn to dusk along the ghat. It’s a busy area with people doing prayers, preaches, cremations, washing clothes, busy barbers, masseuse giving ayurveda massages, people taking a bath, swimming, or simply relaxing by the river.
The walk along the ghat exerted a lot of energy from me especially after a 12 hours bus ride, didn’t have any meal for more than 24 hours, busy area and the sun was striking. Nevertheless, I kept walking along and I kept on stumbling on interesting action, buildings and temples that distracted me from feeling like I was about to collapse. And there was an amazing little shop for the freshest and most delicious lassi! It’s called Blue Lassi. I desperately needed that for some energy boost. Do not miss out on that!
While I was sitting in the shop and enjoying my coconut chocolate lassi, I heard a loud chant and quick steps of a large group of people. I pulled out my phone anticipating for an interesting action. They were carrying a deceased body to the big cremation. A couple of them went by while I was still indulging on my lassi. I quickly finished up my lassi so I could witness the ritual from start to finish.
I walked down to Harishchandra ghat which is the big cremation ghat. Turned out, I did not have to worry about missing out on the ritual because there were more than 1 body, not 2 not 3 but 5! I was stunned! I can’t describe how I felt at that moment. I was pretty much out of words. I couldn’t digest or comprehend the situation at that moment. I just sat there next to a deceased body wrapped in white cloth and getting prepped up.
A local came by and started sharing information that this goes on 24 hours, 7 days a week, nonstop, regardless of weather or climate. They cremate up to 200 bodies per day. While the man speaks, I couldn’t fully concentrate with him as I was contemplating on the sacred and spiritual moment. Here’s what I’ve picked up on the process.
This ritual is to break the life cycle in order to achieve nirvana. In Hinduism, they believe that if the body of the deceased is not burnt, the soul is still attached and it would get reincarnated.
To achieve nirvana, the deceased is wrapped in golden cloth, placed on top of sandalwoods, they stack up more sandalwood above the body, and they pour ghee and sandalwood powder. There wasn’t any bad smell from the cremation, this is because they use only sandalwood which is quite expensive to their standard.
To begin the burning process, the male relative of the deceased holds a handful of long twigs, catches the fire from the eternal flame that is said to have been burning for over 3,000 years. Then, he walks clockwise around the deceased for 5 times and then puts in the twig that’s been on flame. And the brazen flame starts and fume spread in the air. I had to move from sitting next to the body as it was getting unbearable.
The flame goes on for about 3 to 5 hours. Any remains of bones are picked up by the male relative and thrown into the river. The death of a child under 8 years old, holy men or caused by snake bite does not get cremated. They are wrapped with a stone and thrown in the river.
After watching the incredibly thought provoking ritual, I walked back to the direction of the hostels and passed by the main ghat; Dashashwamedh.
In the evening, at around 6:30p.m., hundreds or even thousands of people gather on the main ghat for the worship to fire. The priests light up candles and perform the ritual. It’s very soothing and calming to watch.
You could watch it by the ghat itself or from the boat on the river. The priest faces the river while performing the evening prayer. If you decide to go on the boat, make sure to get loads of mosquito repellant.
Varanasi is a journey of a lifetime. It will offer you something you will never forget and something you will never find elsewhere. It is sacred, spiritual, raw, unconcealed and unsubtle.
Dos & Don’ts
- Do try Blue Lassi for the best and freshest lassi! They carry many different flavors too.
- Do dress up extremely light because the ghat is a long stretch and it gets really hot during noon.
- Do go on the boat ride for sunset and watch the evening prayer and get the beautiful outline view of Varanasi from the other side of the river.
- Don’t take photos of the cremation up close, the locals will get angry and approach you. But you can take photos from afar.
- Don’t give any donation or pay anyone along the ghats, they are scams.