Varanasi is one of the most exciting and intriguing destinations in India. The tour bus picked up our group from the hotel in Varanasi to take us to the holy sights on Ganges River. After a short ride, we were transferred to the bicycle rickshaws. They took us to bustling streets filled with buses, trucks, cars, cows and other rickshaws.
We stopped at the market located close to the river. As we were trying to regain our legs after a harrowing ride on the rickshaws, we felt the horrible smell – they unloaded us next to a large latrine, which was used by the whole market. We quickly followed our local guide toward the river. The smell disappeared, and the magic began.
They put us on a boat anchored just yards away from the ghat (a flight of steps leading down to the river). We arrived just in time for the sunset prayers. On the high platforms, the priests, dressed in colorful robes started chanting. Cymbals, drums, and bells accompanied their voices.
The worshipers released hundreds of small candles in the water. We could see these little floating lights all around us. On the ghat steps and in the water, there were hundreds of women in saris, men in loin clothes, naked children. They came to absolve themselves from their sins by dipping in this legendary river. Many of them were pilgrims who traveled to Varanasi from distant areas to get the blessings and purification by the holy water.
After the service, the boat moved us to another section of the river, to the place of cremation. We saw many burning pyres. Around them, the families were performing their last services for the deceased. Men shaved their heads, washing the soap off with the water from the river. I started to worry about razor cuts on their heads being washed by filthy water. Probably I shouldn’t. Indians performed this ceremony for millennia, and the population of India just grows and grows.
Our local guide was of Brahmin caste, the highest caste in India. He told us how important the burning ceremony was. The fire takes the soul of the dead person to another world and helps him or her to reincarnate into something better.
He told us of the recent passing of his elderly mother and about the cremation his family performed at that exact place. He explained that the family had to stay with the body until it burns completely – to disperse the ashes in the river.
Immediately, I realized, what soup we were floating in: ashes, trash, flowers, soap, human waste. But even this thought did not take any of the magic away from this fantastic atmosphere. Strangely, we did not smell the burning flesh, just the burning wood. Maybe it was because of many incenses used for the cremation. The guide forewarned us that taking pictures, even from the boat is very insensitive. We were disappointed but obeyed.
The sky was getting darker, the water in the Ganges was turning to ink, and the lights from the pyres were shining brighter and brighter. It was the unforgettable sight! We were both fascinated and mesmerized at the same time. The bus picked us up from the little dock and took us back to the hotel. On the way, our whole group was silent – all of us ruminating about the scenes we just observed.
Next morning, we had to be ready for the sunrise experience on the river. We had a quick coffee in our rooms and rushed to the bus – to get to the river before the sunrise. This time there were no singing mantras from the priests, no music, no noise. No burning candles, no vendors selling candles, flowers, souvenirs. Even the market was not open yet. Everything was quiet. The river was tranquil.
But from our boat, we could still see the burning pyres (with yesterday’s bodies or the new ones?), the grieving families, the men shaving their heads. We were mesmerized all over again. After the sunrise, it was time to go back.
We got off the boat, and the guide took us through the narrow, twisted streets, where people were just waking up. Some of us bought little saucers used for floating candles, as a souvenir. The bus took us back to the hotel just in time for breakfast.
Now, thinking back, I realize that the last things I vaguely remember about Varanasi are the smell from the latrine, and the noisy, crazy streets choked with all kinds of vehicles. The first things I vividly remember are the sounds of the Ganges River, chanting of the priests, crackling of the burning wood, people in the river, and the stillness inside me.