Situated in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi is considered the spiritual Capital of India. Lining the banks of the sacred river Ganges, the city is a pilgrimage destination for millions of Hindu’s, who travel far and wide to bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganges, worship in the cities 2000 temples and perform funeral rites to send their loved ones into the afterlife.
Whilst this place is becoming increasingly focussed on tourism, the city and it’s worshippers remain true to their mission and go about their rituals as if nobody were watching. A place like no other I’ve ever been , Varanasi gave me an insight into a fascinatingly spiritual side of India that I feel honoured to have witnessed.
If you’re considering a trip to India, here’s why you should make sure to include a stop off at this spiritual site:
Because even the cows can shop ’til they drop
Cows are a common site on the streets of India due to them being deeply respected. In Varanasi there is no exception, the locals stay beyond true to their beliefs when it comes to our bovine friend.
The one-hour drive from the Airport to Varanasi centre will likely be delayed due to horrific traffic, only for you to realise once you reach the front of the queue that a cow taking it’s afternoon nap in the road is what’s causing the hold up.
Wandering the winding streets of Varanasi, there are bazaars galore filled with a mixture of brightly coloured clothing, gifts, souvenirs, food and religious figurines. You’ll need to get your best bartering-patter at the ready here, as they are inclined to charge foreign tourists significantly more than the locals and pilgrims.
As you admire the never ending array of wares and ponder how big of a Ganesha you can fit in your luggage, be sure to watch your step, as there is genuine potential you might trip over a cow who’s also enjoying a bit of a browse!
Enjoy a make-up tutorial
Wandering the city, getting your bearings and making your way down to the impressive Ghats that line the river banks, you’ll meet an intriguing collection of individuals along your way.
Once you’ve screamed your way past the snake charmers who consider a successful marketing campaign to consist of throwing Cobras in tourists faces, you will likely stumble across a rather photogenic character in traditional dress offering you a make-up tutorial. He’ll paint your forehead with a Tilaka (red marking), perhaps your cheeks as well. He is welcoming you to the sacred river and marking you as someone “special”.
He’ll expect money in return, but it’s a small amount and worth it for the photographs and to show your respect.
Awaken your Spiritual Side
Of an evening, down at the main Ghats around 8pm the local monks will perform their daily rituals, thanking the gods for the sacred river via the mediums of singing, dancing, chanting, lighting candles, shaking sticks, waving feathers and so on. You can pay to go out on a boat so you’re looking back onto the performance – highly recommended.
I’m not at all religious, nor a particularly spiritual person, but witnessing this spectacle really is a feast for the senses, a time to reflect; you’ll be given a candle and flowers to float out onto the river – make a wish.
The Burning Ghats – Funeral Rites
In Hinduism, the river Ganges is worshipped for its life-giving properties; its rich waters travel down through the country and fertilise crops; without crops there is nothing to eat. It is believed in Hinduism that to die in Varanasi ends the circle of life; a spirit who is no longer re-born will finally be at rest.
For those who wish to truly immerse themselves in the culture of The Ganges, it is crucial to go and watch the cremations… but do so with respect! These people are burying their loved ones, they don’t need to feel like it’s a show. I truly believe this is one of the most profound things I’ve ever witnessed, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before and something I will never forget.
Walk North from the main Ghats towards the “Burning Ghats”. There will be plenty of people offering to take you for a tour & “get closer” (in exchange for money), but I’d urge you to politely decline. To me, it doesn’t feel morally right to pay to watch someone’s funeral, certainly not to get so close you’ve got a better view than most of the relatives. Plus there are stories of these people taking you high up the ghats and trapping you; demanding all your cash to let you leave (nice folk). The best thing to do is to stand by the boats and watch from a respectful distance so as not to intrude. (If I remember correctly, I actually paid my irritating “tour guide” just to leave me alone).
Fully naked bodies are shaved of all their hair, wrapped in beautiful saris and then taken into the holy river where they are washed of all their sins. The bodies are then unwrapped and left to dry out on the steps. By western standards, this process seems to be handled rather brutally, but it’s clearly apparent that it’s all par for the course. Meanwhile the Pujari (priest) will be with the family gathered around a coffin shaped, unlit fire constructed of tree branches, wood and kindling. Once the body is dry and the Pujari is ready, the naked body will be lifted onto the wooden construction. As the rite continues, the family will say their final goodbyes, often accompanied with laughter – celebrating this person’s life. You will notice how they also rest various objects onto the body – things that were important to the person. I noticed a re-usable travel mug going on, so perhaps this person was a big fan of a Starbucks white chocolate mocha?
The Pujari slowly covers the body in more wood and kindling as the ceremony is finalised. Eventually the fire will be lit. I remember a flood of emotions at this point, I had never witnessed a burning body before, but also the fire took a long time to get going and I was also confused – perhaps they hadn’t constructed the fire correctly? Was it too wet? How will they get it going? Will they have to remove the body and start again?
“No!” Would be the answer. All of a sudden the flames erupted and engulfed the body. And that was that. I’ve never witnessed anything quite like it, it was so far removed from anything we’d see in the UK and I genuinely felt like I shared in that families grieving throughout the process.
The burning I witnessed was down on the riverbanks, but the wealthier the family, the higher up the steps of the Ghats the ceremony will be conducted – and the more you pay. I also learnt that the fire can be constructed of different types of wood depending on how much the family can afford. And the more elegant the Sari would be as well.
I have no photographs to share with you of this ceremony, it didn’t feel right to be taking pictures, and I’d urge you not to as well.
FYI: Its not uncommon to see one of our bovine friends again, this time enjoying the proceedings by nibbling the branches and leaves of the coffin throughout the entire ceremony, and nobody bats an eyelid – a sight to behold in itself, and one I’m sure will bring a smile of disbelief to your face in what is otherwise a rather sombre experience.
(funeral flowers make a tasty breakfast, says this goat)
Boat Ride at Dawn
Your accommodation will be able to arrange a sunrise boat trip along the Ghats for extremely cheap and with little or no notice, so no need to book in advance of arriving in India.
Now… I thoroughly enjoyed this, but in the words of Lucy “would you ever dare go on holiday and sit on a boat at 5am, in the fog and pissing rain, under an umbrella, wearing your hoodie”; the weather really wasn’t on our side! I do hope for you it will be, as it’s only from the river early in the morning that you can witness how truly important The Ganges is to life here.
(the weather was not good)
As the Sari sellers decorate the steps with their colourful wares, locals will be taking their morning baths in the river, as fishermen set sail to the sound of monks chanting their morning mantras. All the while, a number of tourist boats will be scurrying half asleep tourists along the river to get a glimpse of this spectacle.
As the sun rises and the morning mist clears, The Ghats very much come to life in front of your very eyes; it’s a plethora of activity and busyness.
Your tour guide will be able to explain to your the different Ghats and temples along the river and help you understand the varying importance and significance of each of them.
Convinced you need to visit and experience this sacred wonder? I’ve written an itinerary to see the best of India in 2 weeks.