Sin and luck, death, birth and reincarnation – all combined in one of the most fascinating, oldest and holiest cities of India. Hindu pilgrims gather from all over the country to wash themselves free of all sin and guilt at the shores of the river Ganges. In addition to that, an old ritual attracts thousands of pilgrims: they seek to cremate their relatives at the burning ghats of the river.
This ritual is nothing for the faint-hearted: right here at the riverbanks, where Indian believers bathe themselves, dead bodies are carried to the river by male relatives of the corpses (the oldest son has shorn the hair). They wash these bodies in the river water and wrap a piece of cloth around the carcass. Afterwards, the corpse is being laid down on a funeral pyre and is burned at the stake. Death is believed to be a sanctuary sleep prior to reincarnation. The death deity Yama is powerless in Varanasi, for he may not carry the souls of the dead to hell.
Because this cremation is often incomplete, it is not only ash that is being thrown in the river, but also relics of the corpse! Small children, pregnant women, saints and invalids are not being burned, but rather dumped in the river together with heavy objects which keep them from floating. This technique is not flawless: once in a while, these dumped bodies float at the surface of the Ganges.
The fact that countless relics of dead people swim in the stream of the river alerts the clear-headed mind: How can this river be purifying for body and soul?
These irrational events at the ghats of the Ganges have yet a huge and magical power of attraction. Strolling down the river banks, you see happily bathing Indians as well as cows, herdsmen, Hindu priests, children playing in the dirt and mothers washing their clothes in the river. On the other hand, you experience foul smells and a tremendous amount of garbage which you have probably never seen before.
For perfect recreation, you can rest at one of the beautiful uphill-situated guesthouses with gorgeous views of the ghats for only a small amount of rupees.
A certain must-do is a boat trip at night in order to experience the magical rituals at the main ghat Dashashwamedh, together with hundreds of other boats, lights and flowers.
Let me give you only two words of advice:
Whenever a bosun encourages you to drink a sip of the “cleansing and healthy” river water – Don’t!
And whenever children tell you that the local Coke is produced of river water – Pass that Coke on!