Varanasi is one of the most holy cities in India and was right up there on my must see list. It is a city of ancient histories and traditions and mostly for me as a tourist and photographer it is a city of ghats. A ghat is a series of steps that lead down to a body of water (in this case the holy mother Ganges River) that allow people access. In Varanasi they are famous for showing the life of India in all of its gory glory.
The Ghats –
steps leading to the Ganges River
As part of the Hindu belief system a person lives a multitude of lives where each one is designed to bring you closer to the perfect state of enlightenment through reincarnation. Varanasi is one city that is designed to get you closer to that state of nirvana through interaction with the sacred mother Ganges.
So in real terms what does this mean? Well it means that Varanasi is the most amazing cess pit that either of us have ever seen. And I don’t use those words lightly. The ‘old town’ that is the rabbit warren of laneways that runs behind the ghats is basically a big rubbish bin. No one has rubbish bins to put litter into so they throw it into the street, only the street is about 6 feet wide at best and the accumulation of litter with a big dollop of cow, goat and dog shit thrown in can make for a walk where you really need to watch where you are stepping. (It is worth noting that each morning the lanes are cleaned for the whole process to start again).
Down on the ghats themselves it is a whole other world. For a stretch of about 5kms there are a series of old buildings (most about 200years old – rebuilt after a Mughal sacking in the 1800’s) that seem largely unlived in, although by night there were a few sets that had lights in so who knows. In front of these buildings are a series of stepped forecourts that lead down to a final set of steps to the river.
Now this is where it all gets a bit too much for this girl (and boy as it turns out). There are heaps of homeless people in Varanasi, the old and dying as well as the religious sufi’s (sort of like a monk) and these people and literally hundreds of massive sacred cows use the upper forecourt areas as a toilet. Everywhere you turns there are men urinating on the walls or shitting on the ground. The smell is overwhelming and frankly for a westerner I found it revolting beyond all measure. I got tired of seeing people peeing and having to step around piles of poo. Blech.
Then there is the sacred river herself. The people come down to bathe and pray in the river everyday. That is literally thousands of people immersing themselves in this holy river daily. Unfortunately they pay as much respect to the Mother Ganges as they do to the rest of the place and it is not only incredibly polluted further upstream from industry, but the faithful have no problem hosing the excrement from the ghat forecourts into the river as well. And that is not even considering the burial practices used here.
Speaking of which there are the 2 burning ghats. It is believed that being cremated at the burning ghats of Varanasi will release you from the circle of reincarnation and enable you to be free. It is quite confronting to see dead people wrapped in gold (women) or red (men) shrouds being trooped through the streets on the shoulders of male family mourners who chant as they march through the lanes. They take the dead down to the ghats where they buy the wood for the pyre (approx. 350kg), then the untouchables who work with the dead build a pyre, place the body on the top, add another layer of wood and light it up. Each body takes about 3 hours to burn at which point the workers will fish the unburnt bones (hips for women and ribs for men) out of the fire and offer them to the male elder chief mourner who throws it in the river as a final goodbye.
We were staying about 2 blocks away – poor planning but we didn’t realise on the map that it was the ‘burning’ ghat. All day and night there are the chants of the passing dead making their way to the ghat. On average they burn 150-200 people every day. The worst bit was that there are people excluded from the burning as they are already pure (kids under 10 and pregnant women, Sufis, lepers and cobra bite victims) so instead of cremation they are weighted with rocks and dumped whole into the river. After 2 days of being around this it was starting to mess with our heads. In our western culture we are so removed form death and seeing it so up close and personal was quite confronting. The people themselves though seemed so accepting of this situation – as if it was the norm, which I guess for them it was. There was a calm acceptance that all of this would release the dead and free them, which in any mans language is a good thing.
On our second morning in Varanasi we took a dawn boat ride up along the ghats to watch the people use the river. Families come down to bathe, people pray, do laundry and just swim around. Photographically it was awesome but we both were still having big problems reconciling the fervent of the religious with the filth of their most sacred river. But then again – in many ways that is the way India is. It is a land of weird conflicts at every turn. Some pleasant surprises, some not so much.
While Varanasi was confronting it was certainly interesting and I am glad we went for the 2 days we were there. I don’t think we will be going back anytime soon but it was worth seeing. And very cool for photographs.
A lady offers a candle-lit flower to the river with her prayers.