Last Updated on May 27, 2023 by Ellen
Varanasi, India. Another exhausting Asian metropolis – but also one of the most fascinating, intense, and macabre experiences of our travel lives.
We left Varanasi days ago – but the sights, sounds, smells, and sentiments continue to haunt me.
Every Hindu knows Varanasi (previously Banaras). But for Westerners who may be unaware: it is THE place where traditional Hindu funeral cremations and other religious rituals are performed on the grandest scale.
Varanasi sprawls along a wide, gentle, three-mile curve in the holy Ganges River. My opinion after staying a week; the riverfront is all you need to see of Varanasi.
As you can see in the photos above, huge stone ‘ghats’ — big riverfront steps — line the western edge of the Ganges in Varanasi. There are actually dozens of individual ghats that link together – forming an unbroken waterfront walkway and stage. The scene today has evolved over centuries. In fact, Varansi is said to be one of the oldest human settlements.
Some ghat facades and stairs rise nearly 100 feet. Some are swarmed with boats, commercial tour operators, and other touts. Some ghats host thousands of spectators at elaborate nightly ‘artis’ — mesmerizing ceremonies honoring ‘Mother Ganga’. Other ghats are popular bathing/purifying spots for the devoted. The cremation ghats are piled with wood logs and other funerary supplies. Still others feel nearly abandoned. On the opposite riverbank there is a beach and luxury ‘tent city’ resort.
Walking the ghats, and sitting and watching the ceremonies, became my late-afternoon ritual during our stay in Varanasi. No offense to the rest of the town, but I could find little else worthy of one’s time.
Honestly, like other ancient and enduring monuments, there is an energy, a magnetism to the Ganges ghats. Meanwhile, Varanasi as a whole: another chaotic, noisy, dusty, mass of traffic, animals, and filth.
Granted, I was in a somber and mournful state of mind throughout our week-long visit. It seemed the Varanasi ghats were the right place to be.
The week before arriving in Varanasi we received the news of the passing of my aunt, and godmother, Marilyn K. Todia. At 89, Marilyn lived a full and glorious life. Still, her passing saddens me. Ironically, as I visited a holy Hindu cremation site, Marilyn waited to be cremated back in Cleveland, Ohio, USA.
Then during our week-long Varanasi visit came the terrible news of the death of Philippine friend, Ernesto Coching – the Chief of the indigenous Ati tribe – in a hit and run boat accident. As I stared nightly at the waters and fires along the Ganges, the search to find the Chief’s body took three days in the waters off Boracay Island, Philippines.
The personal losses, the Easter season, the strange and foreign rituals on the ghats, the haze and smoke and incense, and temperatures searing to 100°F combined to create a surreal quality to the whole Varanasi experience.
Varanasi cremations are intense experiences
Certainly, the most astounding moments were at Manikarnika ghat – where the funeral pyres burn ’round the clock. Reports say hundreds of cremations – and ash ‘releases’ – can take place each day!
On two occasions we watched as dead bodies draped in funeral cloth and flower garlands were paraded to the river’s edge, doused in Ganges water – then minutes later, placed atop burning beds of tree trunks. Numerous such pyres burned simultaneously. A complete cremation takes hours.
A small army of workers were involved in the processes. Funeral ‘caretakers’ oversaw and directed the cinerations. The heat was intense. The scene was unreal. My wife found the smell so revolting she had to leave the area. Cows lounged nearby munching the flowers. Beggars circulated asking for alms. Most bizarre, a new outdoor food court is part of the Manikarnika cremation complex.
Respectful onlookers and tourists are tolerated. Guides even offer ‘premium’ viewing positions and explanations for cash donations. Photos are discouraged – but plenty of people were snapping away. I discreetly captured the moment.
We’ve actually witnessed Hindu funeral rituals in other places around India… especially along the Ganges. Hindus believe releasing cremation remains into the Ganges allows the decedent’s soul to break the cycle of reincarnation and achieve ‘Moksha’. Liberation. Enlightenment. Peace. Heaven?
What goes on at the Varanasi ghats is an incredible spectacle. Yet also a natural, methodical, almost industrialized process. The ultimate display of humanity, of spirituality, of India. The visuals are forever burned in my mind.
This group of photos shows the similarly large-scale, devotional, sunset arti services. Thousands were in attendance – including us. We’ve seen much smaller artis in other Indian cities – and even smaller ‘pujas’ (candlelight prayer services). Varanasi doesn’t seem to do small. And there was a palpable excitement and Hindu pride at the nightly events.
Varanasi is a ‘must see’
To me, the life and death (and all things in between) witnessed on the Varanai ghats make the place a ‘must see’ if you are ever touring around northeastern India. To others the scenes may be too personal or putrid. It is a unique and absorbing experience.
Unfortunately, we didn’t find the rest of our Varanasi stay to be anything nearly as special. Thankfully, we did have a nice, spacious, air conditioned, Airbnb rental with two bedrooms and two bathrooms. My mom continues to travel with us for another week. We could walk an ancient maze of shaded alleyways to the ghats in 10 to 15 minutes regardless of the insane heat.
On the down side, all three of us had intestinal issues more than once in Varanasi. Overall, it just seemed less hygienic, user-friendly, and English capable than other Indian destinations.
Still, the experience of the ghats will long remain with me. As will my fondest memories of Aunt Marilyn and Chief Ernesto. May both of them – and the countless souls attaining Moksha in the Varanasi / Ganges rituals – all find the enlightenment, heavenly bliss, and eternal peace they deserve.