After over a month in Nepal, I was so excited to go back to India. My first stop, Varanasi. When I shared my plans with people, literally the only response I got was, “Now? Don’t go there now.” I went anyway. Despite temperatures well over 100, and humidity upwards of 80%. Monsoon rains provided brief relief from the heat, in exchange for very flooded streets. Because tourism comes to a halt this time of year, only one of every three storefronts was even open. What doesn’t slow with the heat is death. Year round pilgrims come from all over India to send their loved ones to the afterlife on the holy river Ganges. To die in Varanasi is said to allow a person to reach moksha (or nirvana). If not to die, to be burned by the Ganges is beneficial, and some believe necessary, in sending a loved one to their next life. While tourists are few and far between, the fascinating rituals around death are as alive as ever.
Varanasi was really really cool. And as a bonus, I was able to meet up with two of my yoga friends from Rishikesh and Manali! Even in the summer, there’s a lot to do and learn in Varanasi. Below are some activities that filled our time. Some are more serious than others, but all are real things we did.
1.) A boat ride on the Ganges – we woke up for sunrise, but unfortunately cloud cover meant no sun.
2.) Every morning there is yoga at sunrise at Assi ghat – a fun procession of fire ceremony, singing and chanting, breathing exercises, and laughter yoga. And hundreds come out for it, young and old alike!
3.) Watch a cremation, usually many at a time, at one of the burning ghats.
4.) Have a lassi (or two) at Blue Lassi (still open even in off-season!). My favorite, and very unique flavor – mango cashew chocolate. Yum.
5.) Go into hotels that are clearly out of your budget and haggle for “off-season” deals. (haha)
6.) Watch how silk fabric is made on a traditional loom.
7.) Trek through the narrow streets during a rainstorm – knee deep in the dirtiest water you’ve possibly ever seen.
8.) Attend a fire ceremony at the main ghat – every night.
9.) Go to a Bollywood movie.
10.) Talk to people. You can’t stand or walk anywhere near the ghats without people coming to talk to you. Most are touts and will ask for money. But we talked to them anyway, and learned a lot! Here are some interesting tidbits about Varanasi, cremations, and the Hindu belief system around death.
- Anywhere from 70-300 people are burned in Varanasi every day.
- Six types of bodies are not burned: small children (because they are already innocent), pregnant women (same reason, innocence), people who die of leprosy (the smell of the corpse burning is too strong), animals (because of their place next to God), those who died of cobra bite (because of their potential to have second life if a healer finds the body), and holy men (because of their closeness to God). All of these types of bodies are wrapped with rocks, rowed to the middle of the river and sunk, except for the cobra bitten bodies – they are wrapped in banana tree leaves and floated down the river, hoping that a healer will find it and bring second life.
- Women and children are not allowed at cremations because they are more likely to weep, and weeping doesn’t allow the deceased soul to leave its body.
- Priests and holy people are burned on platforms high on the gat; on the river bank, the poorest people are closest to the water, middle and upper castes higher up on the bank.
- In old times, wives were expected to jump onto their husbands burning bodies; if not, they were thrown on.
- Cremations don’t smell bad at all because oily wood, like sandalwood, is used.
- Cremations only last 3 hours, which usually leaves part of the hip bones of women, and chest bones of men – these along with the ashes are thrown into the Ganges.
Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited end cities in the world, the 12th oldest. Its narrow, winding alleyways are famous for getting lost in. There are beautiful old temples around every corner. Cremations happen openly throughout the day, and you often see bodies wrapped in colorful cloth being carried through the streets by chanting family members. The introduction of motor vehicles and packaged foods means a lot of noise, and a lot of trash. But it’s a beautiful city, and its wealth of tradition and ritual made this an amazing city to visit, even in the off-season.