Here’s the deal: Varanasi, a town in India, is a trip and a half.
There is no place quite like it. Maybe 5000 years ago there were places like it, but times have changed and so do places, but not Varanasi. Its the closest thing we’ve got to time travel on this planet.
Think of a place like Newport Beach, California where everything is clean, pretty, manicured and where mostly white people reside and do things like throw birthday parties for their dogs. Then think of the absolute and direct polar opposite of a world like that and you’re starting to peel back the first layer of the amazing complexity that is Varanasi.
A more poetic man by the name of Mark Twain had this to say of Varanasi in 1897: “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together!”
Varanasi dates back 5000 years ago making it the oldest city in India. Being there will make you believe that time travel is possible as you observe your surroundings and the locals way of life and traditions. One example being bathing and doing there laundry at sunrise in the Ganges River which happens to be the most polluted river in the world.
See what I mean? Time warp. This ain’t your Orange County Javier’s dinner with valet parking. Dogs here eat dead human flesh out of the water folks. Keep reading.
So why is the Ganges River in Varanasi the most polluted in the world?
Part of it has to do with the fact that hundreds of dead bodies are burned on the banks of the Ganges as a religious burial ceremony. If a family cannot afford the cost of wood to burn the bodies on top of (roughly $30) the family ties weights to the deceased body and throws the corpse into the Ganges. It is not uncommon that bodies float back to the top and end up on the river bank where dogs end up feasting on the human remnants.
Where did Peter take me!? He kept telling me prior to our arrival, in the most elusive tone, that Varanasi was the most ‘powerful place he’d ever been,’ but I was not prepared for this. How can one?
So why do they burn bodies?
Varanasi is considered the holiest Hindu city in the world. Bodies are cremated at two main “ghats”, or partitioned sections along the river Ganges. It is believed that by having your body burned via this religious ceremony on the banks of the Ganges that your soul skips out of the cycle of reincarnation and goes directly to Nirvana. Its a cherished event and seen as a pivotal and positive moment in one’s life cycle.
The banks of the Ganges in Varanasi also attract tens of thousands of pilgrims who bath and drink the water to purify and cleanse themselves in this ‘holy water.’ Despite the alarming fecal matter of the water, ironically most Indians will not accept the fact that this nectar of God is anything but a purification for their souls.
Each day at sunrise locals and pilgrims begin their day by bathing and washing clothes in the Ganges to dissolve their sins. A few meters away the eldest son is burning the body of his father on a pile of wood and then dispersing the ashes into the same water. This is done over and over and over throughout the day.
So now that you have an introduction to the essence of Varanasi, I’ll share how it all went down for us.
We landed in Varanasi in the evening.
We had our driver drop us of near our hotel, Rashmi Guest House, which was located on the Ganges and just a short walk from the various main ghats of Varanasi. Because most places our located down narrow alleyways forbidding the use of a car we weren’t able to be dropped off right at the hotel. Thus we were introduced to the madness immediately. Our 90 pound hotel employee greeted us and carried our heavy bags through the chaos of rickshaws, scooters, honking, mobs of people, and cows who ruled the streets. At one point we were bottled necked in an alley. While I was wondering what the hold up was, a (holy) cow sauntered past me and then we were able to commence our walk.
Here’s a clip of what the streets of Varanasi feel like in the evening. Other-worldly.
With our heads spinning we checked into our room and tried to unwind from the over-stimulation that is India and quickly drifted to sleep. I was anxious to see Varanasi in the light of day.
In the morning we headed upstairs to the restaurant on the hotel roof where we plotted out our day and enjoyed a quick Indian breakfast.
After breakfast we took a long stroll on the bank of the Ganges where we passed dozens of ghats along the way. There are 87 ghats in Varanasi some used for burial, bathing, and for the religious ceremony, Puja. Our walk immediately woke up the majority of our sense much better than the coffee did. We saw men bathing and washing clothes in the Ganges. Cows roaming freely with dogs and goats. A woman with full boob out nursing her baby. That was a first for Peter.
Although the most stirring part of our day was when we came across was the burial ceremony.
During our walk we spotted a group of men surrounding a wood pile with a body wrapped in white cloth in the middle. The burning ceremony was about to start. As we stood around there was a sudden commotion behind us. We turned to see a group of men running out of a large building on stilts.
A man walked over to us and told us they are afraid the building might fall.
So we took a step back to process everything. We had a burning body along the Ganges and a building that looked not a day older than 4,000 years about ready to fall. This combinations of events was a first. For some odd reason, we all acted calm and kept witnessing the ceremony. We followed the local’s lead on this one, however, Peter did whisper to me during the ceremony and said, “If the building starts to fall, run fast that way” and pointed down the Ganges. I gave him a thumbs up and whispered, “good call.”
We later discovered that the building had started shaking due to an earthquake in Nepal that measured on the Richter scale at 7.9 and killed over 9,000 people. The earthquake was headlined across the world and here we were watching a body being burned in public 300 miles away from the epicenter. In the coming days we had an outpour of concern from our loved ones who knew we were in India, including people I hadn’t heard from in years. We ourselves were fine but the people of Nepal dealt with the mass devastation and destruction of that earthquake for months.
We woke up the next morning to this headline:
Below is the building that threatened to fall on us.
While we were observing the burial ceremony we were approached by a man who told us he would explain the ancient ritual to us. Indians, ever the entrepreneurs, spotted the two white people and figured he could make a buck. We obliged and between him and the guide we met with the next day, this is what we learned.
- There are two main ghats where burial ceremonies take place in Varanasi along the Ganges
- One burning ghat burns one at a time while the main burning ghat can manage 3-4 bodies at a time and average 300 per day
- The wood used to burn the bodies is a special oiled wood that burns even in rain while also eliminating/masking the smell of a burning body (its true, all we could ever smell is smoke).
- Typically the eldest son lights the fire
- The body takes about 3 hours to burn
- During the burning of the body family members are to remain happy because if someone is sad and crying it will disturb the deceased soul. Its time to rejoice because the soul is going directly to Nirvana and the cycle of rebirth has broken.
- For this reason, typically you won’t see women at the ceremony as any emotional tears or distress could disrupt the journey to the afterlife.
- After the body is burned the hip bone of the woman and the chest bone of the man is placed in the Ganges.
- Following this ritual someone from the family or burial crew will take a pot and fill it with water from the Ganges. The pot is then broken over the deceased’s ashes. This symbolizes a breaking away from this life to the next. The living from the deceased.
- The next day a worker will sweep up all the ashes and gather any jewelry left over from the cremation. This will be given to the owner of the burning ghat and used (we were told) for wood purchases for families that cannot afford wood for burial (this is suspect).
- Five types of people cannot be burned – children under 10; holy men; pregnant women; animals; lepers. Anyone with this criteria will have weights placed on them and placed in the Ganges rather than burned.
There were tours that will take people out on the Ganges by boat with a guarantee to see floating bodies. We passed. Not our cup of tea to experience this level of the macabre.
However, during one of our cremation witnesses one of the crew took a piece of wood and pushed the leg of the deceased man in an inverted position to get the feet in the fire. The burning leg snapped back and off the body. He then proceeded to use another piece of wood to shove the dismembered leg back into the fire. An uncontrolled reflex led me to gasp and say, “oh my god.” I looked to my right and two Indian men were staring at me disapprovingly. I feebly apologized and turned to Peter and said, “let’s go.” At the time I didn’t know emotion was believed to disrupt the soul but to this day that situation is a mental image both Peter and I have tattooed, for better or worse, in our minds.
When we finally arrived back to our guest house we were told to sit on the stairs of the hotel. The management had decided to evacuate the hotel in fear of aftershocks. At this point we still didn’t realize what had happened in Nepal.
Since we were a bit stranded I reached out to a tour guide my friend Doug had recommended. A man by the name of Raj who Doug had met about three years prior in Varanasi.
Raj who is a self proclaimed tour guide and rickshaw driver picked us up at our hotel. Raj is a peculiar character and a bit of a gasbag, but ultimately he did grow on me. I can’t say the same for Peter.
He took us for a late lunch and insisted we order Tamil— I’m glad he did. Tamil is a traditional Indian lunch that comes with a variety of dishes and breads for dipping. Everything was delicious.
After lunch we took a ride over to the University of Varanasi area where we visited a temple and saw college students who had just graduated. They looked happy chatting with eachther drinking what looked like root beer floats. Quite different from an American graduation where college students would probably be crushing beers rather than an ice cream drink.
I started to realize that while in Varanasi you don’t necessarily need to plan anything. Simply walking down the street or along the Ganges river, or taking a ride in a rickshaw can be the most entertaining part of your day with a healthy mixture of stress, fear, excitement and confusion.
After several hours with chatty Raj we headed back to our hotel. We had told Raj we were looking to do a sunrise boat ride so he insisted he help us find a good one. After what appeared to be tough negotiating tactics he chose a someone for us and we paid a small deposit.
I noticed that we happened to be in the same spot where the follow me to couple had just posted a picture from Varanasi. Peter and I took a stab at it.
That evening we attended the famous Puja ceremony. This ceremony is preformed as a dedication to the dieties of Hindu. It takes place every night and gathers crowds in the hundreds, mostly visitors from other Indian cities. The ceremony is full of energy, art, and is quite beautiful.
We also got up close to a Sadhu—a Hindu Holy Man.
Although Raj told me later on that many of these men roaming around Varanasi are not in fact real Sadhus. They are fakes and do it to make money from tourists. We did proactively pay this man for a photo. If you think about it, a holy man most likely would not take money for a picture and would not be out and about. Oh capitalism. Oh India.
Check out this “Sadhu” who is actually doing a full blown photo shoot. Wild guess—he isn’t legit. Nor are the two in the “follow-me” shot above.
After a full day in Varanasi, I realized my mind was spinning trying to process everything we had taken in.
- burning body
- Ganges bathers
- cows, dogs, goats owning the streets
- fake holy men
- diatribe Raj
- shaking building
- Nepal Earthquake
We were both out like a light after our walk home and our dreams were of psychedelic proportion, or was that just reality.
We woke up the next day at 5 AM to catch our boat for sunrise. We sauntered down to the river bank with confidence knowing our hired driver would be waiting for us. Raj had warned the boat driver that Americans like punctuality. However he was not waiting for us. After 10 minutes another boat driver approached us for a sunrise boat drive so Peter made the judgement to go with this new guy.
It was an incredibly peaceful way to start our day. We watched the morning rituals of the locals from afar. Men meditating, washing clothes, bathing in the Ganges. Everywhere we looked there was some sort of activity. Women swimming. Children playing cricket. It was so calming, quiet, and interesting to observe.
Peter and I took some time to reflect and be grateful for our safety in our travels. An earthquake nearby that had killed thousands was a dose of perspective.
As we headed back to land we were approached by none other than the boat guy that had stood us up.
He pulled up to our boat with massive nerves accusing us of standing him up. He had this unfounded self-righteous attitude that left us both bewildered. At first I tried to rationalize with the guy by explaining that we were waiting and he never showed. He flat out continued to lie. At this point I just laughed and simply said, “you are not allowed to be mad at us” and we continued on.
Back at our Hotel we decided to grab some food before meeting up with Raj for a day of sightseeing. We headed up to the roof where I ordered my favorite Indian dish, aloo gobi, and waited in anticipation for its arrival. There were a few others tables with guests so Peter and I briefly chatted with them until our food arrived. I dug into the dish with pure delight when suddenly an aftershock began to shake the roof. Within seconds the other guests, cooks, staff and managers jumped up and ran down the stairs in hysterics. Peter and I sat there, thought for a moment, and continued eating delicious food. Being from California this was a familiar feeling and really the tiniest of aftershocks – plus, savory food had just been delivered. Minutes later the hotel was once again evacuated.
Raj showed up an hour later and we began our day with him. We had big plans with our first stop being the Golden Temple— The most sacred temple in India. Typically as a foreigner you are not granted access to holy Hindu places of worship but if you have a guide and nothing else but your passport you can get inside. But before you enter you have to make your intention clear which is you want to learn more about the Hindi religion and such. Raj made me repeat after him.
” I love Shiva”
“Shiva is my favorite god”
This was the 5th sentence I had to repeat and it was all done fast so I said it without thinking about. Afterword I felt strange about saying that for a number of reasons. I hold myself to a high standard of never lying. For the obvious reason that it is wrong but also, I was once told by a wise man to never lie because then you can never be shaken and your karmic path will continue in the right direction. I consider myself mostly spiritual but also identify with Catholicism because I was brought up in a Catholic family – I was stating that Shiva was my favorite God. Peter assured me that these were merely words to further explore all possibilities of spirituality and that my karmic path was not disrupted. I felt better.
Peter and I were escorted into the temple, signed in by officials and then were taken inside the various shrines dedicated to house Lord Shiva. Thousands of pilgrims travel to Varanasi to visit this temple to be blessed by Shiva.
As we entered the part of the temple where the statue of Shiva is located there was pushing from behind and an overall sense of franticness. Peter and I had no real understanding of what we were suppose to be doing. The “Holy man” next the statue of Shiva placed a dot on our heads and rubbed a white substance all over Peter’s forehead. We exited the shrine and flower necklaces were placed around our necks. Then, right on queue, we were asked for “money” – with an outstretched open palm of the holy man.
We were then shuffled to another area where we received a blessing together and had to chant in Hindi. This was an epic fail for me. Then, right on queue, we were asked for “money”.
Our guide that had directed us to the various parts of the shrine asked us ”do you feel Shiva in your heart”? Having felt like we were just taken through a car-wash on hyper-speed and not knowing which way is up, Peter asked if we could have a moment to sit and reflect. We took a seat. I closed me eyes and did some gratitude and meditations in the holy place. When I opened my eyes a crowd had gathered and we found ourselves surrounded and stared at by Indians. Our guide explained that most tourists do not take time to reflect and that the locals thought it was great. Then, right on queue, he asked for “money.” Oh, India.
This is how we looked afterword.
Also yes that’s cow pee we are stepping in.
We met the curious Raj outside of the Lord Shiva temple and headed over to the burial ceremony ghat. This is where we learned the most about the customs which I explained previously. While we were there we saw three bodies being burned and one body wrapped up while an entire family praying around it.
As we were walking on a ledge above the burning bodies Peter, who was walking in front of me, was suddenly head-butted out of nowhere by a holy cow. One word—terrifying! He was nearly knocked down into the fire of burning bodies. My heart skipped a beat. Peter’s completely stopped momentarily.
I was worried about what was going on with Peter’s karma that a holy Hindu cow would head butt him into a burning pit of human flesh.
After gathering our composures we ventured on to our next stop which was a silk factory where I bought myself a silk handwoven scarf for $25. Feeling pretty good about my purchase, I asked Peter if he thought that it was an authentic purchase. The look he gave me is what I imagine he would give me if I asked him if he wanted to bath in the Ganges later.
Our last stop was Raj’s home. He invited us over to meet his wife and kids. As soon as we pulled up his 12 year old son, Uday, came running out. I asked him if I should hug him or shake his have to which he responded with a hug. He was beyond adorable.
We went inside where we were introduced to his wife and two daughters; Neelam, Anshika (19), and Priyanka (17). I was especially taken aback by his eldest daughters accent. She sounded American! She told me she learned it from listening to Justin Bieber— whom she loves.
The girls were so intrigued that we live so close to so many American celebrities in Los Angeles. They asked if we had seen Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez and obviously Justin Bieber. Unfortunately I hadn’t seen any of them and they didn’t seem to be all that impressed with Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, or Gwen Stefani.
It was exciting to see the progression of the Indian culture with these girls. They could speak English, weren’t interested in arranged marriage and felt that school and study was the most important path for their future. I asked Anshika if she wanted to get married to which she replied, “No. I want to study to become a teacher.”
I had a wonderful time having girl talk with the daughters and even had Anshika give me henna as well as braid my hair.
When it came time to eat dinner though it was very traditional. The women cooked and served the men and myself and they would not eat with us. It felt a bit strange but progress takes time.
While I was having the best time with the family, Peter on the other hand was becoming less impressed with Raj by the minute. I think things really fell apart when after two day together Raj asked Peter, “what’s your name?”
Before leaving we all gathered on the roof and snapped some group pictures. It really was a special experience to be welcomed into their home, treated like family, and learn more about the intricacies of Indian family values. And I adored his kids.
After Raj dropped us off, we night-capped the day with a boat ride on the Ganges to watch the puja ceremony from the water this time.
The only unfortunate part of this excursion was that apparently cockroaches come out at night and are attracted to boats that reside in polluted Ganges water therefore our form of transportation was full of them. I was ready to go home and heavily shower.
The next morning Raj came to see us off, collect his tour guide fee as well as walk us to our taxi to the airport.
I knew I had formed a special bond with Raj because of how his kids had taken to me so I was feeling pretty good about seeing him in the morning. Peter was already downstairs with him when I sauntered down the stairwell to greet him. When he saw me his face lit up,
“Jaime! I know you! Oh my family, they not stop talking about you.”
Peter rolled his eye at me.
On our treacherous walk to our taxi I now had a full on body guard. Raj directed traffic; demanding cars, scooters, and rickshaws to stop in my path way as he guided me to our car. It was exhilarating!
We said our good-byes to Raj and off we were to our next stop in Mumbai.
I want to add that while in Varanasi the staring and the locals asking to take pictures reached epic proportions. Typically much to Peter’s dismay I always said yes even when asked to hold babies.
So there you have it. Varanasi was the most foreign and powerful place I have ever been. It was intense and frantic. Disturbing, but uplifting. Filthy yet beautiful. An ancient city that humbled me and left an imprint on my heart. A place I will never forget.
With much gratitude thank you for continuing to follow along on our adventures.