Varanasi – life, death and everything in between

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‘Masala chai, coffee, chai, coffee…’

On and on the names of hot beverages were shouted out to the passengers on board the overnight sleeper train to Varanasi. It was early morning, time to wake up and take in my surroundings. It had already been a long journey, a journey that deprived me of a deep sleep as I guarded my belongings from any wandering hands. Several times the emergency brake was pulled and the train stopped in the middle of rural India in order for the wandering hands to escape the train with someone’s luggage, luckily mine wasn’t one of them, my watchful eyes, chains and padlock’s had managed to do the trick.

I was eager to arrive at our destination, the main reason being to finally see the sacred waters of the Ganges that awaited me. After another bumpy journey in another rickshaw, which appeared to get smaller and smaller the further inland we seemed to travel, our wider hips just managing to squeeze into the seat, we were dropped off in the middle of a Muslim Festival. Our feet would have to take us the rest of the way, the roads being blocked to vehicles, rickshaws and all other forms of transport. The streets were full to capacity, trying to stay together in a group proved difficult. I kept my eyes on the top of my travelling companions heads in order to not get swallowed up by the crowd. Eventually we made it to the Ghats, the gateway to Mother Ganga.

My excitement was short lived, however, as we arrived to find more stalls selling statues of Ganesh, more postcards, more of everything available throughout all tourist resorts in India. My heart sank, once again another place of wonder and significance had become commercialised. My disappointment, however, was short lived, proving that in all situations one should always be patient and persevere, as walking along the river bank for only a few short minutes I was greeted by the life on the Ganges that I had wanted to witness. Gone were the shopping opportunities, replaced by the Sadhus, covered in the ashes from departed souls from the funeral pyres, children playing badminton with their parents, pilgrims bathing in the holy water, as well as western spiritual seekers on their journey to find the meaning of life. The sun was setting, its last rays of the day providing just enough light to witness life by the holy river. And so I stopped and sat on the Ghats, watching, taking it all in, breathing deeply and feeling incredibly lucky to be able to come to a place that is so special to so many people. So many of us rush through life, travellers included, trying to tick off a never ending to do and to see list, but I believe it’s far more important to stop, take in your surroundings and feel and appreciate where you are and down by the Ganges is a place to do just that.

After the sun had set we ventured out on a boat to watch the cremations on the funeral pyres further up the river. The moon was the brightest I had ever seen it, providing light and shelter in the darkness. Boats, filled with tourists and pilgrims, surrounded the pyres. The fires flames flickered in the darkness, dancing to the rhythm of the chants from the priests. One by one bodies were brought down in colourful shrouds of reds and gold. I expected the smell to be overpowering, however the direction of the wind was in our favour and the smell of burning flesh was drifted off into another direction. I observed the scenes in front of me, saying a silent prayer for those departing from this life. Funerals, from my experience, are filled with sadness; however the atmosphere at the pyres felt calm and peaceful. Somehow it didn’t feel like the end of someone’s life, just the passing of one’s life into the next. Reincarnation was taking place in front of my eyes, and you could feel it in every sound and visual aspect of the ceremony. For some, however, the scene in front of me appeared to be just another tourist attraction, as all the people on the boats, with the exception of myself and the guides, stood to get a snapshot of what they were seeing, no doubt to post on their social media accounts. Feeling saddened by this I approached my guide to ask how he felt about people taking pictures. ‘It’s not right,’ he said, ‘this is someone’s funeral, how would they feel if it was the funeral of someone they loved?’ I understood his frustration, saying goodbye to a loved one, to a life, shouldn’t be a photographic opportunity.

We left the pyres in order to attend the Aarti ritual that’s performed every evening by the priests to thank Mother Ganga for the life that she brings. On the way we made our own individual offering to the sacred river and whilst placing our candles in the water we noticed something floating along by the side of the boat. ‘Is that a body?’ someone asked. Concerned about the person’s death, a normal reaction to an outsider, a member of the group pressed our guide to call the police and report it. ‘There’s a body in the river,’ said our guide. ‘There are lots,’ was the reply, and then the line went dead. To die in Varanasi, and have your remains scattered into the Ganges, is regarded as a way of receiving Moksha, liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth, for Hindu’s. So, for those who can’t afford to be cremated, their bodies are dumped into the river instead. This wasn’t the first, and it wouldn’t be the last, person to be floating along passed tourists and pilgrims.

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