The Ganges is India´s most sacred river and most important pilgrimage. To Hindus dying here guarantees transcendence from the cycle or reincarnation and a direct path to heaven, all sins washed away. Cremation on its banks, even simply spreading ashes in its waters, is auspicious and believed to bring salvation to the departed. Varanasi, perhaps the world´s oldest city, has watched Mother Ganga flow by for thousands of years. It is the holiest place in India.
Arriving in Varanasi provides a sharp contrast to the spiritual tranquility of the river. The steady call of a chaiwalla woke us. An overnight train had ferried us here, wedged between a hard, vinyl-covered plank and the carriage ceiling. We climbed down foggily, trying not to wake the four generations of local farmers beneath us. The train wheezed to a halt. The taste lingered of the chaiwalla´s exotically spiced tea lingered as we negotiated the station´s thick tangle of passengers, luggage jockeys, food vendors and stray dogs. The full extent of India´s overpopulation seemed to hit us all at once.
We hailed an auto rickshaw outside the station. It crept along slowly, never faster than the parade of ornately wrapped bodies that streamed past us. The journey to old town is just two kilometers but it took nearly an hour. The universe´s every color, and probably every smell, can be experienced in this corridor between modern India and its ancient roots. Our driver dismounted and beckoned us down a narrow alleyway, far too narrow for his rickshaw. Within a hundred paces we had left the tumultuous urban sprawl of new town and arrived in the spiritual heart of India.
Devout sadhus, clad in bright orange shawls, patiently waited to pass gargantuan cows. The smell of old dung pervaded everything along the meter wide laneways. The songs of colorful funeral processions echoed off stone walls where small children peeked out from the shadows. This is the Varanasi that travelers have flocked too for thousands of years.
A few hundred meters from the main burning ghat we found our hotel. Close enough that the smell of burning sandalwood is ever present. We weren´t sure what to expect, we´d heard many stories about this place, none coherent or resembling the last. With open minds we ventured down to watch the deceased burn on the banks.
We found dignified and beautiful ceremonies. Untouchables chant as they carry bodies to the pyres. They are India´s lowest caste, most people literally will not touch them, but in this setting they are strangely prestigious. The ornately shrouded corpses they carry are then dipped in the sacred waters of mother Ganga, washing away a lifetime of sin, and set upon a precisely weighed pile of wood, Sandalwood being the most prestigious and expensive. It takes about 3 hours to fully cremate each body, during which the family says prayers. The heads of the relatives are often shaved, even the women, to show their mourning. Finally the ashes are collected and ceremoniously spread over the Ganges. We were struck by how peaceful it was, the surviving saying good by and the passed making a slow and humble return to nature.
The ritual never stops, 24 hours a day, every day, for the last three and a half thousand years. Each fire is lit from a fire inside of the Shiva temple, which is said to have never gone out since it was started one thousand five hundred years before Christ was born.
For the living the Ganges is no less important. Men and women bathe in the river, believing it purifies their spirit. Families wash clothes and collect drinking and cooking water. Bull sharks even travel here, thousands of miles from the sea to feast on all manner of creature given to the river. It is among the most polluted water sources on earth, it has even caught fire, but this does not stop the devout.
Tourism is plays an obvious role in the economy but has yet to, and hopefully never will, spoil the fascinating authenticity of this holy place. It is difficult to describe the potent mix of emotional and sensory inputs that invade any human that comes here. I can say this, despite the contradictory beliefs and abundant reservations that most foreign visitors bring with them, the overall sense of peace, tranquility, and timeless wisdom that pervades Varanasi is hard to deny. It is a place that indelibly etches itself into the memories of all visitors and calls to them for the rest of their lives.