“Meh. Varanasi. No strong opinions either way…”
…Said no one ever.
I braced myself for Varanasi, I’d been told that you either love it or hate it, there was no in between in one of Hinduism’s holiest cities. Varanasi was where one Danish bloke I met concluded that you don’t come to India to enjoy it, you come to see what it’s like and from what I’d heard, Varanasi was the epitome of India. I was expecting chaos, dirt, rubbish, stink and cows, and all of this in quantities that make you wonder if you’d had enough vaccinations before you left your country. The train ride there was fucking weird though, the whole coach was full of foreigners. Anyone who’s ever caught a sleeper class train in India will know that never happens, like, ever, but it was kinda nice to be able to sip my chai without listening to the standard morning chorus of 70 people loudly clearing the mucus from their faces, and it’s definitely easier to eat breakfast when the dude next to you isn’t hell bent on showing the whole coach what the inside of his lungs looks like.
So I rocked up to Stops Hostel and as I opened the gate, four puppies spilled out into the street. Oh. Em. Gee. Puppies. I abandoned all ideas of checking in in order to maul the tiny, bitey little balls of fur and joy. I was instantly in love and may have squealed a little bit when I first laid eyes on them but they’re proper little fuckers. No sock is safe from them. In fact nothing was safe. Bags, sandals, anything less than puppy height off the floor ended up covered in tiny teeth marks. Or dog piss. Whatever. But you’ll forgive anything this damn cute, even when you walk into reception and step in shit.
I was staying in a tent on the roof because it was cheap and I’m a tight bastard, but you still have lockers and power points and that’s where the toilets and showers are so you’re pretty well set up. Breakfast is still included so you can spend the morning trying to fit enough eggs, toast, cornflakes and chai into your digestive system to last you until the evening. Expect to be woken up by yoga types grunting and panting themselves into various contortions, the first time it happened I was lying in my tent wondering why all of the rhinos in the world were having an orgy on the terrace. To be fair though, Varanasi is one of those places where it’s worth getting an early start, sometimes way to fucking early.
You have to wake up at some god awful hour in Varanasi at least once to watch the sunrise from a boat on the Ganga. It’s the rules. You could stumble down to the ghats in the dark all by yourself if you wanted to and do battle with the boatmen for a good price but my haggling skills basically involve pulling a face, rolling my eyes then agreeing to whatever they asked for in the first place, and that’s after I’ve had breakfast and enough caffeine to ensure vaguely rational thought processes. If I attempted this independently I’d probably end up handing over my bank card and PIN and inviting them to help themselves to whatever they think is a fair price whilst drooling on their shoes. Much easier to just make it as far as reception because a boatman will show up there at 5am every day to see if any backpackers fancy an early morning jaunt for ₹100 fixed price.
It’s an eerie place is the pre-dawn Ganges. Everything looks like something out of a Dalí painting before the sun comes up and the haze means you can’t quite tell where the river finishes and the sky starts. Y’know, apart from that definite horizontal line through the middle. Whatever. It’s an experience just to watch the ghats come alive with people. You start off with a shit view of the morning aarti at Assi Ghat before he rows you into position to watch the fiery sky ball rise over the horizon. Clearly you’re not going to have the river to yourself, there’ll be hoards of floating tourists and at some point a bloke in a boat will try and sell you some manner of overpriced tat and no, sir, I won’t purchase anything from your “Ganga Supermarket” but I will, however, take slightly stalky photos of you and your boat as you row away. Yeah, Varanasi totes brings out the stalker in you. Photographing people washing in the Ganga river as you cruise by on a boat? Totes not creepy. Nope. Not if you justify it to yourself by noting that every fucker on all of the boats is doing the exact same thing.
But why have one boat ride down the holiest river in India in a day when you can have two? The hostel arranges mini tours with a bloke called Krishna who’s absolutely lovely but his explanations are, well, somewhat lacking. It’s probably a combination of broken English and the fact that, like most people in Varanasi, he’s fond of stuffing his chops full of paan then attempting to have a conversation through it. The evening ghats tour is where they pile you onto a motorised boat with a bunch of other backpackers and take you down the river to a couple of the most important ghats. As dusk approaches, flocks of gulls follow the boats down the Ganga for reasons I have yet to ascertain, which would be totally awesome but I live in Brighton. If anything with feathers and wings approaches me I instinctively want to drop into the foetal position and hand over all of my chips. In this case though you don’t have to protect your soft tissues, you just have to try and take as many photos as possible without getting shat on.
It’s common knowledge that Hindus believe if you die and are cremated in Varanasi then you’re released from the cycle of rebirth and will achieve nirvana. Out of the 87 ghats, two of them are burning ghats and we were taken to the main one, Manikarnika Ghat, where we were moored up for half an hour to watch and have it badly explained to us. So basically, the following is what I gleaned between this boat trip and from chatting to a bloke a few days later who showed a group of us where we could sit and watch unhassled on the ghats. It’s chaotic as fuck, totally different to how we do things in the Western world.
– So firstly, Shiva is the main god here. He lost his earring in a well or some shit, or Parvati did and he had to retrieve it for her. I don’t remember properly and between my crap hearing, being sat at the back of the boat, and Krishna’s habit of talking with his gob full I’m not entirely sure what happened in the story. But end result is that the city is dotted with lingams and tiny bull statues, and there’s a shrine by the the ghat to Shiva which contains an eternal flame and it’s flame taken from this fire that is always used to light the funeral pyres.
– Bodies are carried through the city to the burning ghats on some manner of stretcher on the shoulders of relatives. It’s pretty constant and utterly surreal. You can be chilling, enjoying a chai and a snack, and a funeral procession will march past, usually at speed, with the body shrouded in orange as the men chant, “Rama nama satya hai.” It’s weird how it doesn’t put you off your samosas though. The body is carried to the water and submerged before it’s taken to the pyre.
– So, the guys on the boat said that back in the day the bodies were handled by the untouchable caste, but these days the caste system is illegal in India. They didn’t make it clear who did handle the bodies these days, whether it was the family or if it was just a job like any other. The dude we spoke to a few days later though told us that yeah, it was still the untouchable subcaste called the Doms who handle the bodies and they make a pretty fucking good living doing it too.
– From the ghats themselves you can watch them place the body onto a pyre and cover it with more wood, but the legs and head stick out. The wood is sold by weight. Then a flame is brought down from the shrine and the pyre is lit as cows, dogs and humans just hang out. Despite the intense rituals involved, from a Western standpoint it all seems very matter of fact. One day I was sat watching from the ghats and there was a kid just poking at the flames like it was a fucking campfire that needed stoking or some shit.
– Once the body is totally burned (apart from the breastbone which doesn’t burn and is thrown into the river) the ashes are unceremoniously hosed into the Ganga. Like, literally, with power hoses that draw from the river and blast the sludge away as people pick through it to find gold teeth or jewellery, or basically anything valuable that hasn’t burned or melted that they can flog. And you thought your job was shit! I’ve seen some pretty crap ways to earn a living but that’s gotta be up there along with, I dunno, street fundraising or inbound telephone customer service.
– Not everyone can be cremated though. Holy men, pregnant women, children under ten years old and lepers are rowed out to the middle of the river and dumped there, weighted down with stones and it’s not uncommon to see corpses floating down the river. It’s not as easy to weight a body as you think as anyone who has a mild addiction to crime scene dramas will know, plus there are families who can’t afford the wood to have their loved ones cremated so they just chuck them right in there.
– One day, me and another chick from the hostel wandered down to the burning ghat and a bloke stopped us and told us women weren’t allowed but we could follow him and he’d take us where we could watch with a good view. Yeeeaaahhhh, riiiiiight! Everyone knows you don’t follow anyone anywhere in Varanasi unless you want to be pressured out of the contents of your wallet. We simply left and walked around. We found out later that this was half true; foreign women are permitted but Indian women aren’t on account of their tendencies to be all emotional. People crying on the burning ghats means that the departed souls can’t go to nirvana.
– Bodies are burned here 24/7 but I’ve no idea what they do during monsoon when the water can get high enough to swallow everything up to and including the Eternal Flame. There’s an electric crem these days too but people don’t like to use it despite it being way cheaper.
– After the body is burned, the family have to walk away without looking back. There are all manner of rituals to be adhered to for the next few days. Sons have to have their head shaved, they must all bathe in the Ganges, all festivities that were to occur within a set amount of time, including weddings, must be cancelled.
– And one last thing to remember; we were allowed to take photos from the boat from a distance but you shouldn’t ever take photos on the ghats themselves. You’ll be reminded of this regularly, it’s best to keep your camera away, one bloke from the hostel was accused of taking photos when he wasn’t and the scammers demanded money off him. But think about it. As differently as death is viewed here, how would you feel if you were burying a family member and a bunch of tourists rocked up and started taking photos?
After we’d spent half an hour watching dead people get cremated we were ferried to Dashashwamedh Ghat which is the main ghat for the aarti. This is a lengthy candle lighting ceremony with about 12 blokes, and a lot of people show up to watch it from the river. All this gets you is a view of a lot of people in boats whilst some dudes in the distance wave fire around and kids try and sell you diyas which are the flowers with a candle in the middle that you light and send off down the river as an offering. Or in most cases, struggle to light before leaning far enough over the side of the boat to place your diya in the water without it tipping and probably failing miserably because fucking up an offering to Mother Ganga is way more preferable than falling head first into a river containing more corpses than Fred West’s back garden. I don’t care how bloody holy it’s meant to be, I don’t want it anywhere near any of my orifices thankyouverymuch.
I reckon everything we did on the ghats tour would have been much better done on foot. One night a few of us headed back to Dashashwamedh Ghat to watch the ceremony up close and it’s way better, but feels a bit more like a performance rather than the religious ritual it’s meant to be, partly because the camera wielding tourists (of which I was clearly one) outnumber the devotees, partly because the Brahmins doing it look proper bored. Though to be fair, if I had to repeat the same movements several times with different objects every single night whilst hundreds of people crowded the river I was trying to worship, I’d be pretty over it too.
Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India
Stayed at: Stops Hostel Varanasi