The city of Benares, better known as Varanasi, is still one of the most fascinating places in India. It has everything that you would expect or wished for a trip to India. It sounds cliche but Varanasi is the place where life and death come together. It was very interesting to see a dead person being carried to the holy river with almost a little celebration.
Where to stay at Varanasi
Accommodation in Varanasi is not very expensive. There are a lot of hostels and guesthouses near the river round the entrances of the Ghats. Ghats are riverfront steps leading to the banks of the river Ganges. We stayed near the Munshi Ghat. It was a good location because we were near the river and at the same time there were a lot of places where we could eat or just wander around. Just one note: the taxi’s and Tuk Tuks cannot drop you off at the door of your hostel. This is because the streets are very narrow. So you will have to walk a little bit. But don’t worry it’s not far. Although we would advise you to go by day. At night all the happenings and sound can overwhelm you. Especially near the railway station, you could feel uncomfortable.
What not to miss in Varanasi
Where to begin… You will see a lot of the Hindu culture and life style in Varanasi. If you haven’t seen any there Hindu cities before Varanasi, it will be even more interesting. In India cows walking freely on the streets is very usual. Small streets with little shops selling everything, food being prepared and eaten on the streets, poor hygiene, these are all normal things. But there are some events you can only witness fully in Varanasi.
Daily life at the river
The river has integrated into the daily lives of Hindus. It is not just used for cremations but also for taking a bath and washing clothes. This may sound weird, for us, it was definitely interesting to see this. Automatically the idea of contact with water which has dead body ashes in it pops up. But for Hindus, this is very normal. By bathing in the Ganges river, Hindus believe that their sins will be washed away.
Daily evening ceremony at the Ganges
Every evening there is a ceremony (called Aarti) which takes place at the Dasaswamedh Ghat. The ceremony starts around 6.15 PM, therefore it is best to be there around 6 Pm to have a good spot as it can get very crowded. You can also hire a small boat and witness the rituals from the river. Either way, it is definitely worth a visit as there is happening a lot. You will surely regret it if you miss it.
The ceremony is performed by 5/6 Hindu priests who move in perfect harmony and choreography. The Ganges is seen a living goddess (mother Ganga). With the ceremony and all, it’s rituals such as blowing on the horn, waiving lamps filled with incense, dancing with fire and chanting, a dedication to Hindu gods is being performed. According to Hindus attending the ceremony gives them blessing and purification.
Varanasi is at it’s peak during the evenings. Next, to the ceremony, you can see small lights of candles released on the Ganges. These candles are being sold for a small price and everybody can buy them and release them on the river and make a wish. This gives a beautiful view as there are hundreds of them floating on the river each night.
Hindu cremation in Varanasi
There are 2 main areas where the cremations take place. One is on the left when you enter the riverside from the Ghats. This one is bigger and only used by Hindus. It has a mystic atmosphere. You can see a lot of wood staples, cows and other animals and ongoing fire of the many cremations which take place in a day. There are a lot of families of the persons who passed away, surrounding the cremation area. The second cremation area is a little bit smaller and can be found on the right side of the river.
The Ganges is considered holy and it is believed by Hindus that having their dead bodies washed and cremated on the Ganges and their ashes thrown in the river will liberate them from the cycle of life and death (reincarnation) and allow them to move to a higher plane of being.
Process of cremation
The body is being wrapped up in colorful sheets with golden decorations and is being carried to the river. While being carried the body is accompanied by the words of the carriers which sound almost like a song or cheering. Once at the river, the body is being soaked and washed in the river. After this, the sheets are being taken off and preparations start for the actual cremation. What got our attention was that we didn’t see anybody sad or crying, it was almost like death is accepted all along and considered as part of growth instead of the end of life.
As we learned from an Indian local:
People from all over India, come here to cremate their deaths. Older people or people who are sick, come to Varanasi so they are sure of being cremated in Varanasi. A cremation costs around 20,000 INR (315 USD). Some people cannot afford this and money is collected for those who still wish to be cremated at the Ganges. Some families who can not afford the wood for cremation sometimes throw unburned corpses in the Ganges. Children before the age of 5 are not being cremated but simply thrown in the river with a weighed stone or buried. In some cases, people are being buried and not cremated because there should not be purified no matter what is done to the corpse. These are victims of suicide, murder, or some other kind of violence.
How to get to Varanasi
You can reach Varanasi by air, rail or road. There are daily domestic flights from other Indian cities. The roads are very good round Varanasi and there are a lot of busses from cities around for cheap prices. If you prefer the railways in India, just as we do, you can take the train from most cities. There are 2 railway stations in Varanasi, the Kashi Junction, and the Varanasi Junction.
Costs we made in Varanasi
Guesthouse: 900 INR (14 USD) for 2 nights
Train from Jaipur: 840 INR (13.21 USD) for 2 persons
Food: round 100 INR (1.57 USD) per meal for 2 persons
Water: 1lt is 20 INR (0.31 USD)