Varanasi is located on the most sacred stretch of the Ganges. It is one of the oldest cities in the world and perhaps the most intense, atmospheric place we have visited in India so far. For more than 2,500 years seekers and pilgrims have come to visit the god Shiva where he lives. For Indians visiting this place once in their lives is similar to a visit to Mecca for Muslims. Bathing in its waters brings redemption and purification that will last a life time. Those who are unable to make the trip here, visit those who have and gain redemption from their encounters with the pilgrims. Death is part of life and not hidden in India, especially not here. The cremation grounds where family and friends bring the corpse of a recently deceased loved one is right next to the area where people worship at dawn and dusk and bathe. Each corpse is burned using 660 pounds of wood after a final bath in the Ganges. Later most of the ashes are returned to the river - a literal ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Some of the bathers had shaved off all their hair, a part of the mourning process.
We began our visit here last night taking a row boat out on the river to witness the daily ceremony where prayers are chanted, bells rung, and incense burned. We joined other tourists and a few locals on the water, buying special prayer candles. These little plates of flowers and a candle were lit and set upon the waves as we offered prayers for those most prominent in our thoughts. I hope my mother felt the vibes I sent her. Krishan hired a priest who gave us a special blessing while he was onboard. Then we rowed past the cremation area where ten fires were burning brightly. So many visitors come to these places that mourners and worshippers totally ignored us, buried in their own thoughts. We revisited the area at dawn, witnessing a smaller worship ceremony, many people bathing in the cold water and more cremations. Here and there more mundane activities were taking place. People washed laundry in the river; boys played a cricket game.
We left the boat at the cremation area and walked amidst the fires to old narrow lanes above. Some people in our group found this upsetting and inappropriate. While it felt uncomfortable and unfamiliar to me, I much preferred the intimate involvement this people had with their dearly departed to the way this is handled in the west. In some ways Varanasi reminded me of Lourdes. Shops sold plastic containers so that pilgrims could bring doe of the holy water home.
In sharp contrast to the sadness of the cremation area, we happened upon some wedding parades near our hotel when we returned. Since there are certain auspicious times to marry according to the astrologers, weddings can take place on any day of the week and tend to bunch up as everyone tries to pick the same perfect moment. While wedding are often over the top and much too expensive in the US, the Indians take wedding ceremonies to another level altogether. It is common to invite everyone you ever encountered any time in your life, literally thousands attend. We stumbled into the parades that were taking the groom to the reception area. In northern India he usually arrives on a white horse surrounded by bands and dancers, generally only men. The parades were lit by people hired to carry light fixtures. They were strung together by electric wire and their lights were powered by a generator that followed the parade in a rickshaw. We were more than welcome to stay and dance, but you can only cram so much into a day.