It’s 5.30am in Varanasi and I have no idea what to wear. We’re taking a boat ride along the Ganges – and the burning of bodies is a solemn affair. Is eye make-up inappropriate? Jeans too casual?
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt so far in this crazy town – anything goes. I slap on mascara and head out the door.
Varanasi, India’s Holy town
Varanasi is the the spiritual heart of India and a mind-blowing place. To level with you – it’s completely bonkers.
Located along the banks of the Ganges, pilgrims from all over the world come to Varanasi for prayer, meditation, bathing in the holy river, to die or to honour the dead.
In Hinduism, Varanasi is regarded as the last stop on earth before nirvana. Many people trek here to breathe their last breath, believing their soul will go straight to heaven.
As a result, there are a lot of very interesting people round these parts. My favourite thing to do in Varanasi was sit by the Ganges in the glow of the afternoon sun, people-watching.
Sadhus & snake charmers
From dreadlocked-holy men painted in ashes, weird westerners in hippy gear, snake charmers, body burners, bodies being burnt, dodgy salesmen and beautiful brown-eyed Indian children splashing in the river, Varanasi is a real melting pot.
It’s a visual feast, and expect an assault on your nostrils too – there are some interesting smells round these parts.
From burning flesh of the cremations, to the scent of cannabis regularly wafting from groups of Sadhus – or spiritual adventurers.
Hindu deity, Lord Shiva, is often pictured smoking weed. The holy guys clearly figure what’s good for the goose, is good for the ganja (sorry – couldn’t resist!)
Celebrating death in Varanasi
A number of hospices line the river, a daily reminder of the many dying people waiting for the end to come. Along the river are two burning sites where giant fires burn bodies right in front of your eyes 24/7.
As you walk closer and your eyes adjust through the chaos and smoke, you’ll likely see a charred hand, foot or head hanging out.
Sir, you want boat?
If families can’t afford the fees for a dying loved one’s burning ritual, often the bodies are just thrown in the Ganges. Presumably, in the hope this will achieve an equally decent spiritual outcome.
So if you take a lovely boat ride – you’ll hear ‘sir, madam,you want boat?’ on a loop – you might just want to be mentally prepared.
Magic and mystery in India’s spiritual heart
What a grim bloody place, you’re probably thinking round about now. Bizarrely, it’s not – it’s actually amazing.
Here, the business of burning bodies is simply part of the day-to-day. Locals, workers, cows, dogs and goats all mill around the burning bodies without batting an eyelid.
I’m the world’s most emotional person – I cried when I saw how pretty Bruges was – but for some reason, I’m not upset in Varanasi. There’s a certain mystery and magic in the air that’s pretty special.
To breathe your final breath here is considered auspicious, a celebration. It must be a relief for those in ill-health who make long pilgrimages to finally arrive at their final resting place.
It’s as though everything is following the order that it’s meant to be (in the most disorganised, dirty, unhygienic way you can possible imagine!)
As a random aside – women whose husbands are being cremated may not attend the ceremony. This is for fear the women, in their grief, will fling themselves on their burning hubby and roast themselves to death. All very dramatic.
Every evening, hundreds of people gather by the Ganges for ‘Aarti’, a daily holy ritual, and quite a spectacle. Disciples dance, pray and perform with fire in Cobra-shaped fire burners to honour the Gods.
Evening rituals on the Ganges River. Varanasi, the India you've always imagined, and more. Today I saw – holy men smoking chillum, bodies burning on the river, pilgrims happy to be in this sacred place, children begging, a dead puppy on the street, colours, people and religious dress from all around the world. It was amazing, dreadful, happy, sad and beautiful all at once. #india
Greeting dawn on the Ganges
So there we were, our last morning in Varanasi, jeans and mascara doing the job just fine as we headed to the river in the dark. As we pushed off in our boat, dawn was starting to break, an ethereal mist snaking across the surface of the river.
The Ganges was totally alive by 6am as people bathed and swam, others meditating and praying on its banks. Acrid smoke from the cremations floated across the river, a constant reminder of those burning bodies.
It might not be your ‘usual’ holiday destination but Varanasi is an amazing place – life and death at it’s most raw spilling out along the banks of the Holy River. I’ll certainly never forget it.
So, if that all sounds a bit heavy – you’ll be pleased to hear we’re off to beautiful New Zealand next. Pristine beaches, dramatic mountains ranges and turquoise waters beckon!
Have you been to Varanasi? Did you love it, or hate it? Let me know in the comments.