It is true, nothing can prepare you for Varanasi.
We heard anecdotes from other travelers about how different and unique it is.
“It’s like Ancient Rome” one said.
“You need to forget about your western mentality and try to connect with the Hindu culture. That will turn the experience from traumatic to fascinating” said another one.
I have to admit that ever since we started planning the trip I was quite nervous about it – not only because of how hectic it was supposed to be but especially because that’s where a lot of people get cremated. I’d never seen a dead body in my life, so the idea of being so close to death had me shaking.
As we traveled around the country I would think “30 days to Varanasi”, “10 days to Varanasi”, “Tomorrow Varanasi!”.
And the day finally arrived.
A driver picked us up at the airport to take us to the Old City, where our guest house was located.
Traffic was heavy but the driver made the ride enjoyable as he was sharing some information with us. “See that building over there? That was my high school” he would say, combining facts about Varanasi and also about himself.
An hour later, we arrived at Kedareswar Guest house – a hotel located right on the edge of the Kedar ghat – one of the 84 ghats in Varanasi that lead to the very sacred (according to the Hindu tradition) Ganges River.
We booked the “Room with a Ganges view” option months in advance as we wanted to have the prime experience. Our room was located on the top floor. It was spacious and clean. Then, we noticed a curtain.
“You will have a nice view of the Ganges” the man who helped us with the luggage pointed out as he opened the curtain. It revealed a big window with a huge terrace – the very terrace available to all the guests in the hotel and where breakfast would be served every morning between 6:00am and 10:00am.
“Where is the Ganges?” We asked confused.
“Yes, the Ganges is right after the terrace” the man responded, leaving us with a big smile and closing the door behind him.
Matt and I went outside. The Ganges was there, but the view of the room was of the dining room. We were like monkeys in the zoo, guests and crew would be able to see us through our window.
After evaluating our options and noticing that there weren’t better rooms available, we took a big breath and decided to focus on the positives. We had a clean room, in an incredibly dirty city, and it was quiet (for the most part).
Early in the morning we had breakfast in our monkey cage. It was too foggy to eat outside.
Then, we headed out – we needed to be at St. Thomas Church at 9:00am sharp. We knew Varanasi was going to be hectic so Matt and I agreed to sign up for two group tours: one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
The driver and guide were late due to the unexpectedly heavy fog, but our group was already at the church. Wendy, a woman in her 70s that also joined, suggested to go to the stall across the street and get some chai while we waited. Everyone thought it was a good idea, so we carefully crossed the street and ordered some hot teas with ginger.
Then, Wendy noticed there was some action happening a few stalls to the right of ours. We could tell she was the “free spirit adventurous type” so jumping out of her seat, she went to see what was going on.
“Karen! Come check this out! They have Bang!” She yelled at me in excitement.
Before the trip I read about “Bang” or in other cases “Special Lassi” that goes on in India. Bang is basically weed that you could either buy as a ball that you can eat or get it on a lassi (the famous Indian yogurt drink). This stall was the real deal. Forget about fruity beverages, it was weed straight up with salt. People – mostly Indian men – would get in line to get one of these balls and eat it in one bite, followed by a big sip of water.
“It makes us happy, you know? Just more relaxed for the day” one Indian man admitted as I couldn’t believe what my eyes were seeing.
We were saved by the bell as the guide showed up.
The morning tour consisted on a half-day trip to Sarnath – the very place where Buddha gave his first sermon after being enlightened. There is a big stupa right where it happened and you can see ruins of temples and other stupas. Knowing that there are pilgrimages to get to the place, I felt grateful that we were there, expanding our knowledge and stepping on holy grounds.
At around 2:00pm we drove back to the city. Our second tour was staring at 4:00pm, Wendy tagged along and the three of us decided to have lunch at a famous restaurant called Aman. We ordered some chicken biryani, curry and vegetable pakoras to share.
Refueled for part two, we walked back to St Thomas Church. There, our guide was waiting for us.
She took us to a beautiful temple, the flower market, an abandoned house with a beautiful courtyard, a sweets shop and a mosque. This, while we experienced Varanasi for what it is, a crazy, dirty, chaotic city where almost everything goes.
By this point of the trip we’d been in many Indian cities. That includes Delhi and Amristar – the two destinations we found to be quite polluted. Then, there was Varanasi – the dirtiest of them all. The alleyways had a strong smell of urine and poop needed to be dodged carefully while walking around. This being said, it is a place everyone needs to see at least once. There is nothing like it, and it’s challenging to describe it with word.
As we continued to walk, it was getting dark and we were approaching the water. I knew what was coming- my biggest fear of the whole trip had finally arrived and it had a name: Manikarnica. This is a ghat on the Ganges that serves as one of the two crematories for the Hindus when their lives come to an end. According to this religion, being submerged and cremated there brings “Moksha” or salvation to stop the reincarnation cycle. This being the case, people from all over the country bring their sick or dead relatives to be cremated here.
The ghat is open to the public, and one can watch the whole process – from groups of men bringing the corpses to the holy water, to when they submerge them and finally throw them into the fire as rituals happen at the same time.
Before we entered the ghat we stopped for a minute.
“Alchal, please, prepare me for what’s to come. I’m a bit scared” I told our guide while begging for some group support and a quick therapy session before the big event.
“Are you scared of death?” She responded.
“Very much so. I’m a westerner, we have a different relationship with it” a shaken me replied.
She was very understanding and promised not to get very close if I didn’t want to.
A deep breath and we continued to walk in..
The first thing we saw were people leaving after cremating someone close to them. They didn’t look sad.
“Do people cry?” I asked Alchal.
“Not very often. They want to show the dead and the family that this is a good thing, because they are helping the soul go to the next level. Of course they are sad, but they also feel accomplished” she responded kindly.
We proceeded to entering the main part of the ghat. In the distance we could see a handful of fires burning. I had a big knot on my throat but hold my tears – I didn’t want to be the weird tourist crying for strangers. At the same time, I couldn’t stop thinking that each of those fires contained a human body. “What if I see a head? A hand? A torso?” I would tell to myself – but I understood very quickly that if you don’t stare at the fire, you don’t see the detail – so I didn’t stare. I just looked over and trained myself to look away when I was about to focus on what was in between the logs.
Chanting was heard in the distance. As we turned, we noticed a fresh new body that was being carried down the ghat to reach the water.
A few minutes later, more chanting – body number 2 was coming in.
“Around 200 people get cremated everyday” Achlal said. The number shocked me.
Then, as we were standing there it suddenly became less overwhelming. We were able to switch from fear, to appreciation for life and the courage to face this inevitable event gracefully and maturely. I saw the family members saying their last goodbyes, men helping carry the wood and preparing the next pits for the next ones in line. Then, there was the India that we already knew: dogs everywhere, merchants selling tea and snacks next to the people being cremated and of course, a party boat pumping music that would pass by from time to time on the Ganges. It never stops, even when dealing with dead.
We said goodbye to Alchal and Matt and I ran to the hotel. We needed to shower ASAP! The idea of all the ash we had on us was a little too much to handle. We showered, sent the clothes to the laundry service at the hotel and went out for dinner to take in the experience we just had.
The next day, Matt and I got into a rickshaw to take us to the Benares Hindu University – with a beautiful campus and a Shiva temple that was recommended for us to see. When we arrived and were about to get into the temple, we received a text message from our travel agency saying that our flight for the next day was cancelled. Outside of Shiva’s temple, we spent a good hour looking for other options to get to Kolkata. The one we found would leave very early in the morning, taking away half a day of Varanasi. We agreed to take that flight as there was no charge, and had to re-prioritize our day of touring for the day. We didn’t explore the university, instead, we asked the rickshaw driver to take us directly to Assi Ghat – the newest ghat and located at the beginning of all of the other ones.
There, we hired a boat to take us around the Ganges to see the ghats from the water. The city felt like it was moving in slow motion, compared to how quickly everything moves inside of it, being so chaotic. There were people washing their clothes, more boats being loaded with people to be shown around and even Manikarnica was easier to swallow from afar. We could still see the bodies coming down to be cremated and a few fires burning, but without the sound – like put on mute, and it felt peaceful.
Once we got out of the water and went back to madness, it was time to go to a famous lassi place called “Blue Lassi”. It is located on a narrow street – interestingly enough – leading to Manikarnica. We were there, sipping our banana chocolate lassis, while families were passing by transporting their dead relatives. The place was packed with westerners and you could see the trouble faces as this kept happening.
Later that day, we joined the multitudes to experience puja (worship) in the main ghat. It seemed like the whole town was there. The ceremony pretty much consisted on a group of men singing, praying, lighting candles and doing some choreographed moves in front of the holy river.
After that, and to have our last dinner in Varanasi, we went to the Dosa Cafe – a family run restaurant that serves all types of dosas. One masala and one banana and Nutella dosas later, we said goodbye to Varanasi.
The whole experience wouldn’t leave my brain. I couldn’t stop thinking about how little we know about life, how afraid we are about certain things and how now more than ever, we should push ourselves to understand other cultures.
This stop on our trip was a good reminder that death is the only thing we have for sure – so better enjoy life while we have it.