Curled into the left crescent bank of the Ganges river, Varanasi lives and breathes with religious reverence, culture, and life. The most ancient continuously inhabited city in the world, walking the streets of Varanasi is like stepping back in time. The narrow alleys are filled with life as they have been for millennia. Lined with tiny shops, houses and temples, the alleys pulse with people, carts laden with goods, cows, dogs, and funeral processions. It’s a long way from the “licked clean” (as one local put it) streets of the States, or anywhere in the Western world.
The true heart of Varanasi lies not in the city streets though, but on the river Ganges. There, the numerous ghats (steps down to the river) are filled morning, day and night with religious rituals and the ancient life of Varanasi.
Bathing in the Ganges
As the sun rose over the Ganges and light first spilled onto the ghats, we took a boat ride to see how the day begins on the river. The banks of the river are alive with people and activity. Bathing, washing clothes, and other curious rituals are taking place. Despite being the fifth most polluted river in the world, the waters of the Ganges are thought to be cleansing. Bathing the Ganges is thought to wash away the sins of a lifetime.
Bodies wrapped in colorful cloth on stretchers made of bamboo are carried through the city in funeral processions down to the ghats for Antyesti, or the Hindu funeral rites. Being cremated on the banks of the Ganges, having your ashes spread in the river, or even dying in Varanasi, is thought to help break the cycle of reincarnation giving salvation to the deceased.
Between stacks of blackened firewood, onlookers, and the ever present street dogs and cows, we watched the funeral ceremony. It was both fascinating and odd to see the funeral rites carried out in the open amid so much life, such a contrast to the quiet affairs of funeral in the West. Pyres of wood are built to burn the bodies. For wealthy families, expensive sandalwood is used. For poorer families, they may not even be able to afford enough wood to burn the body. Finally, we watched as remains from the fires were carefully loaded onto small row boats to be washed away in the waters of the Ganges.
As the sun set over the holy Dashashwamedh Ghat, the river comes alive with fire. Saffron robed scholars wave incense and flaming lamps synchronized to rhythmic chants and music. Ganga Aarti, a Hindu worship ceremony, begins with the blowing of a conch shell. A ceremony of incense and fire is dedicated to Lord Shiva, and the Goddess Ganga of the Ganges river.
With dusk settling on the river we took a row boat out onto the waters. A boy in a tiny boat rowed over and offered to sell us candle offerings. Small paper plates piled with flowers and a candle, an offering to Shiva. Many of these offerings float on the river, tiny points of light amid the many boats waiting for the evening cermony. Carefully lighting the candle offering we lowered them onto the river and made a wish.