In this city, Varanasi, death hides not behind closed doors, in wooden boxes or as bottled-up grief. In this city, life and death dance together.
Varanasi is the place Hindus come to die, as it’s said that to die here is to break the cycle of death and rebirth. Goudalia, the “old city” of Varanasi, is situated on the banks of the famously holy Ganges. Hindus believe that “Mother Ganga” is made up of the sweat and tears of the god Shiva as he created the world. Venturing into the maze of Goudalia’s narrow streets, it’s common to encounter a funeral procession – men chanting and carrying a wrapped body through the streets towards the cremation pyres, known as the “burning ghats” (ghat = an area with steps leading down to the river).
The deceased who are pure – pregnant women, babies, sadhus (holy men), victims of leprosy and cobra bites – are not burned. They are sent forth from the funeral ghats into the river “whole”, with rocks attached to sink them – however, sometimes comes the bodies fail to sink, instead floating down the river.
Not only is the river a broth of bodies, it’s also a thick soup of floating plastic. Furthermore, chemical plants upstream of Varanasi emit poisonous effluent which flows straight down the river and through the city.
To Hindus, Mother Ganga, despite her toxicity, is the source of all life. The ghats beside the Ganges are concentrated with vibrant activity that epitomises all that it means to be alive. Seemingly frail old women beat their colourful saris with unprecedented vigour, washing them in the holy river. Groups of buffalo at bath time stick their necks out above the surface. Sadhus stand like statues, meditating, on riverside pillars. Children and adults alike jump feverishly into the water, swimming and waving to passing boats with delight. To bathe in the Ganges is purifying, and to drink water from the mother is to drink the water of life.
The celebration of the life-giving river is actualized every evening, as the “Aarti” ceremony is performed at several of the ghats, to give thanks to Mother Ganga. Boats full of singing pilgrims are sandwiched together to observe the ceremony, and thousands gather on the ghats. Brahmin (Hindu priests) perform a choreographed dance to entrancing Hindi music, swaying in turn with billowing incense, candelabra trees and cymbals.
This pure and cleansing city is also home to some of the cleverest touts in one of the sleaziest countries in the world. Take for example, the “friendly” folk down by the burning ghats, and their informative lessons on the intricacies of the cremation ritual. Of how some families cannot afford the 150 rupees it costs to buy just one kg of wood for the funeral pyres. Please will you give a donation?
All that a traveller observes, the contradiction, the diversity about India—can be found in Varanasi. In the west, we are conditioned to believe in a concept of good and evil; goodies and baddies. Life is good, death is bad. But here, polluted water is holy, thievery is legitimate and death is no longer bleak. Everything is so entwined that it doesn’t take long to shake those black and white notions, to embrace the colourful celebration that is India.