The City of Light: Where Life Meets Death
*Women going through their morning ritual of preparing for the day
“Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older than even legend, and looks twice as old of them put together”. - Twain, M.
I’d say that Mark Twain was quite accurate in his description of this eerie city founded 5000 years ago by the Hindu deity, Lord Shiva. That is, if you believe in legends….Modern historians more accurately date Varanasi, also known as Baranes to around 3000 years old, which still makes it one of the oldest cities in the world.
I’d love to write a blog post about my entire experience in India, but as I’d like to keep this relatively short (we will see about that), I decided to pick one area in India that was particularly memorable…and Varanasi is a city that truly gives new meaning to the term “memorable”.
*like everywhere in India, the colours of the city are vibrant and alive
India is plagued with homelessness. Or at least what Westerners would consider “homeless”. No matter where you go, the streets are teeming with ramshackle houses constructed out of a variety of materials such as concrete, scrap metal, cardboard, mud, plastic tarp and garbage bags. The occupants of these structures don't own the land they live on, but rather, their collective mass as squatters enables them to build large communities that would prove difficult for the government to evict or relocate. Even in the more opulent areas of Bombay (modern day Mumbai), multi-million dollar houses and condos are situated right next to these slum communities. Varanasi, was no exception to this rule, and having been in India for almost 2 weeks already, I thought the initial culture shock of everything that was India had worn off. Varanasi took India (as I had experienced it so far) to a whole new level. Although known as the City of Light, Varanasi is not for the faint of heart. It's cherished spiritual rituals of life and death are put on display in very public arenas, and even for the most well-travelled Westerner, can be quite overwhelming.
Before I get into my first impressions of this magical city, let me provide some historical colour as to the significance of Varanasi in relation to the Hindu culture and India as a whole.
Religiously, Varanasi is considered one of the holiest cities in India. Hindu pilgrims from all over India (and beyond) make it their life's ambition to trek to the Ganges river to cleanse their sins, collect its sacred waters to bring home for relatives (used to cure an assortment of physical and spiritual ailments), and more significantly, to die. It is believed that those who die here reach Nirvana (what is considered Heaven in the Christian paradigm) and achieve Moksha - the liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. After all, despite the sacredness of cows, who really wants to come back as cattle…
Given this role that Varanasi plays in the Hindu psyche, "homelessness" in Varanasi is omnipresent. In fact, I'm pretty sure that there are more people living on the streets than there are living in actual houses or apartments. Not only are the streets bursting with makeshift shelters, most people on the streets are dying, close to dying, or have some sort of deformity (self-inflicted or not). Not a surprise as people literally come here TO DIE and cure themselves of disease. It is the city of the living dead. No doubt, this is a hard sight to stomach.
The city runs on disorganized chaos. It's like there are no rules and everyone just does what they please - yet oddly, the madness seems to work. Shit, literal shit covers nearly every inch of the streets…droppings from goats, cows, dogs, and children running amuck. Cows are sacred so this is their stomping ground. Often you'll see cows just sitting in the middle of a store, taking reprieve in the shade, and the store owners just moving around their business as if there wasn't a giant cow in the middle of their store.
The day starts early at 6 am in Varansi, a smoky haze lifting off the Ganges river as Hindu monks glide down the river Ghats (a set of stairs leading down to the river), chanting an eerie Sanskrit prayer. These few minutes during dawn are a reprise from the chaotic beat of the city. Only dedicated monks offering their morning prayers and a few eager tourists with eyes still caked in sleep shuffle towards the river Ghats to observe the morning procession. As the haze begins to lift, city inhabitants descend upon the river to bathe and relieve themselves. Though considered sacred, the river is by no means sanitary. Tourists are not encouraged to even dip their toes in the river for fear of catching some ungodly parasite. Excrement is the least of your worries in this river. As the river is also the final resting places for close to 40,000 bodies each year, nearly half of them only partially burned, it is not unusual to see partially decomposed limbs floating past.
*sunrise in the morning in Varanasi
From what I remember, there are two official Ghats where the ritual of burning the dead take place. Photography at the ghats is forbidden at these Ghats, but you can often see them in the background from other photos of the river. Traditionally, bodies are burned using Sandalwood. I'm not sure if there is a religious significance to using this type of wood, but I do know that it is used because it masks the smell of burning flesh. I was told that it costs around $50 USD to buy enough Sandalwood to burn one body. For many elderly and diseased who have come to Varanasi in hopes of reaching Nirvana, it can take years for them to save the $50 USD needed to purchase this wood. There are cheaper woods that you can purchase, but according to keepers of the funeral fires, Sandalwood is the most desirable.
When I was there, the government had recently installed an incinerator at one of the Ghats in hopes of reducing the amount of bodies being burned the traditional way. On any given day, approximately 200 bodies are burned at each Ghat. When bodies are burned using Sandalwood, the burn lasts about 3 hours. However, 3 hours is not sufficient enough time for the entire body to be reduced to ashes. For men, the chest portion of the body often remains partially intact, and for women, the hips. These partially burned remains are then tossed into the river for the fish to consume (another religious rite that aids the soul's journey to Nirvana). At the time I was there, the incinerators were proving to be less than popular as it was/is believed that the process of the funeral rite was essential to achieving Nirvana. Some believe that using a modern incinerator confuses the soul and causes it to wander restlessly for eternity. As such, the industry of death in Varanasi is "thriving" to say the least….
However, death is not the only industry in Varanasi. This mecca of death is also a major producer of fine silk, and as most inhabitants of the city are opportunists, we easily found ourselves an English speaking guide eager to show us the splendor of the Varanasi silk trade (or rather, he found us…). Silks in Varanasi are handwoven and intricately designed. Every color imaginable and then some, line the shelves of hundreds of silk shops.
Silk shopping is quite an experience in Varanasi. I'd equate it to shopping for a Fascinator (fancy British hats) in London…The moment you enter a shop - be prepared to spend at least 2-3 hours draped in every silk the shop has in stock…as well as a few from their store down the street. There is no such thing as popping in for a quick browse…no no….this is serious business. From the moment you set foot into the shop you are quickly ushered in (before you can change your mind), shoes taken off (the floor of the shop is a giant mattress…not kidding), offered chai (accept but don't drink unless you fancy a bout of explosive diarrhea), and seated on giant cushions on top of the mattress floor. You will then be show cased EVERY SINGLE ITEM the store has for sale. You can say "I'm interested in silk scarves" and they will show you about 1000 silk scarves (all different qualities, colors, designs, weaves, etc…), and then some silk bedsheets, curtains, and table cloths….just in case you want to buy those as well. The prices are quite amazing - even the inflated foreigner prices - which are inflated by about 50% as they expect you to negotiate. The key to getting the best possible price is to buy multiple items. So if you plan on bringing home silk scarves as souvenirs - you'd get a better deal from just buying from one store. For example, a pure silk and pashmina scarf (pashmina is the hair from a goats under coat on its chest) would retail for about $300-$900 from any major department store (depending on the brand). You can pick one up for a nifty $60-100 in Varanasi. Gorgeous silk scarves retailing for about $50-$80 at home would go for about $15-25 there. And of course, little cheapie silk scarves that you see sold in little markets and fairs at home for around $25 would be around $3-7 apiece. #BARGAIN You can also get silk evening gowns custom made. My friend Alex got a beautiful green evening dress made for around $50.25. Now why $50.25? Because the shop sold the material for $50.00 and it cost them $0.25 to pay the seamstress to sew the dress. Little casual silk cocktail dresses run about $10 a pop for a custom sized dress.
Now unless you are staying at an Ashram, chanting and yoga=ing your day away, or studying Sanskrit at one of the city's many schools, there isn't a whole lot else to do in Varanasi. Eventually the chaos starts to wear and you start to dread even little things like hailing a tuk tuk to drive you out for dinner because it takes about 20 mins to negotiate with the tuk tuk driver on the price. Although looking back, I'm not sure why I bothered negotiating with the tuk tuk driver over a dollar…I guess it's a mentality you get into that you have to negotiate for everything - but clearly he needed the dollar more than I did.
As the red sun sets on the holy river, the last must-do experience in Varanasi is to hire a little row boat to take you out at sunset to watch the evening parade of floats made of religious shrines glide their way down the river. You can light a candle on a lily pad and sent it afloat on the river…it's quite something to see…a river full of floating lily pads with candles on them….not a bad way to end your day in Varanasi…
I wouldn't say this was my favorite place in India (another blog about that at another time), but I would say it was one of the most memorable and unique places that I have ever been to. So if you are planning a trip to India and would like to see something other than a million different magnificent and bejeweled palaces - I'd encourage you to be adventurous and explore the dark, twisty, windy streets of Varanasi and experience one of the holiest places on earth for yourself.
For more photos of my trip to India CLICK HERE
DISCLAIMER: this blog is based my personal experience and reflection. Descriptions of some of my experience here are rather gritty and graphic and collected from my memory of interactions that I had with various locals I had met. As to how "accurate" the historical facts are…that could be debatable as I'm basing this blog on what I was told by locals in Varanasi….