By the time I made it to Varanasi I had spent close to three months in India. I had already navigated the larger cities, waded through vendors on crowded tourist paths, and visited some of the holiest places in the world for Hindus and Sikhs. I felt as if I had come to an understanding with India, albeit a small one. However, when I arrived in Varanasi it was almost like stepping off the plane for the first time into India once more.
Varanasi sits on the bank of the Ganges River in north India in the state of Uttar Pradesh. It is considered the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism and is often regarded as the religious capital of India. Between the healing powers of the Ganges River and the Hindu belief that death (with cremation) in the city brings salvation, Varanasi is the city of life and death.
Varanasi’s effect on travelers is of the polarizing sort. From conversations with fellow wanderers, Varanasi is either your favorite place in India or home to some horrid experience. After arriving I understand both perspectives and luckily find myself leaning towards the former. Varanasi takes all of India, the smells, noises, religion, vendors, beggars, cows, and wraps it all up in a highly concentrated dose for the unprepared traveler. If it is your first stop in India it is easy to understand why it may be an unwelcome shock. For me, I felt like I was receiving a true dose of real India, away from the tourist crowds of Rajasthan, Delhi, and the Taj Mahal.
Not to say that Varanasi isn’t touristy, but it is easy to lose yourself in the evening Agni Puja (fire worship ceremonies dedicated to Lord Shiva) or a boat ride along the Ganges watching hordes of men, women, and children bath in the morning light.
In my life I have seldom been faced with death or more specifically, dead bodies. Beyond a couple of open casket funerals, I have never even seen a dead body. At home, the lives of aging individuals creeping closer towards the finish line are swept behind the curtain of nursing homes and hospitals, but in India death stares you straight in the face. In Varanasi, death is a common as ordering a banana lassi.
The riverside in Varanasi is dotted with ghats, which are the center of activity during morning bathing hours and evening ceremonies. Two of the ghats, Manikarnika and Harishchandra, are dedicated to the cremation ritual. In public, bodies wrapped in white cloth are brought out and laid on stacks of logs. Families and friends of the deceased sit along the steps and watch as the body is burned to ash. Attendants running the burning ghats walk around with giant sticks that they use to prod, roll, and flip the body to help it burn.
Coming across the burning ghats for the first time I sat in shock and reflection. Watching bodies being carried out, set aflame, and burned to ash seemed to have a profound effect on me. Death is something i have little experience with and having bodies burned in front of me stopped me short. Seeing the burning bodies handled with a surprising lack of care struck me as disrespectful, but seemed to go unnoticed by family members of the deceased.
None of the family members seemed to exhibit signs of sadness or grief. Instead the burning is a happy occasion paying tribute to a fully lived life that will end in salvation through the cremation process on the banks of the Ganges River. After the body is finished burning, the ashes are collected and given back to family members who take a boat into the river to release them.
Bodies are constantly brought out at every hour of the day to be burned and it is common to see three to four bodies on fire on separate pyres at the same time. Between the two burning ghats over 300 bodies are burned a day.
The juxtaposition of life and death in Varanasi makes it one of the most vibrant cultural and spiritual places in the world. It is one of the most fascinating places to walk during the morning and night, and equally enjoyable to take a boat for a perspective from the water.
Leaving India for Nepal
After a delayed train and cramped local bus, I made it to the Nepal and India border at Sunauli. The border process was extremely easy. On the India side you check into a small office nestled between convenient stores and restaurants and wait a few minutes to get your exit stamp. Crossing underneath the Indian and Nepali arches you walk into a better maintained immigration office to get your Nepal visa. After filling out a short form, giving a small photo, and paying $100 I instantly received my Nepal visa. With smiles from the immigration officers and route phrases of “Welcome to Nepal,” I could already feel myself relaxing and shedding some of the mental armor I had required while traveling around India. I will admit it was refreshing to be out India
An eight-hour shared car ride later I arrived in Thamel, the heart of tourism in Kathmandu, at 11 in the evening. I found a guesthouse down the road and immediately crawled into bed. I was tired from the total 24 hours travel (delayed train departure and arrival made it longer than advertised). As I fell asleep my thoughts lingered on the snow capped Himalayan Mountains, excited for the days to come.