If you are planning a trip to India there are a handful of places that are known by all travellers as imperative sights. The ubiquitous Taj, the majestic high altitude desserts of Ladak, the serene Keralan backwaters and the holy city of Varanasi. The etymology of Varanasi steams from the sanskrit ‘the meeting of two rivers’, the Varuna and Assi rivers. However, being one of the oldest cities in the world, it has been known by many names. Benares, Banaras and Kashi to name a few...
When people speak of Varanasi they speak of the relationship between life and death. How here, on the holy ghats, they are so clearly intertwined. Like the ash and dust that join the air carried by the flames of the burning funeral pyres. Dead bodies adorned with crimson and magenta flowers are paraded through the labyrinthine cobbled streets. Their gaunt faces defiantly beautiful in death with glassy eyes endlessly staring upon Maya (material illusion) which they have left behind. The procession moves to the cacophony of life; children’s laughter, dogs barking, sellers flogging goods, prayers to Shiva loudly crackling through speakers which were made during the Raj.
Before arriving I had read widely upon Varanasi attempting to prepare myself to be face to face with death. People spoke of ‘dawn of the dead’ moments where body parts could be seen floating down the River Ganges and the smell of burning flesh which polluted the air. I have never been able to see the beauty in death, it has always terrified me. The notion that one day you or a loved one could just not exist was just too much for me. I was unable to see the joy that is so often felt in the East where death is concerned. When I imagined a funeral I saw people dressed in black weeping in the pouring rain standing around a hole in the ground. I didn’t see the vibrant colours, tears of joy and bright orange flames of the East. In England we are taught not to show emotion, during one of the few funerals I have been to I remember trying desperately to hide my tears. Now when I look back I see how inherently strange that is, our culture is so emotionally repressed even whilst in mourning we are supposed to be reserved and hushed. Death is so quiet back in England, it’s shadowed in a sea of grief and for me was unthinkable. Whereas here, in the steaming heat of Northern India, it is a completely different story.
I’m not too sure what I was expecting from Varanasi. I was treating it almost as a test for myself, that I could be faced with death in the most physical sense and be ok with it. We arrived into the holy city at 4am disoriented and sleep deprived. Sitting in a rikshaw careering through a city that seemingly didn’t sleep, the fruit and chai wallas were out in force, selling to those on their way to early morning prayer. Cows lazily ambled around getting themselves in the way of everything and everyone. Building work was in full swing, yet there was none of the madness and hassle that we had been warned of. In fact, when we were dropped off at Assi Ghat there was a sense of extreme calm. We had arrived just in time to experience the morning aarti (worship). Every morning without fail pilgrims come to the ghats to pray for Mother Ganga, the river of life. There is chanting and rituals performed by the faithful who spend their lives in devout study of their religion. Smoke from the ornate metal chalices in the shape of Buddha's many headed serpent, created spirals in the morning sky, playfully dancing in the air. There was no death here, only a jubilant celebration of life. After the aarti when the flames have died down musicians sing prayers for Shiva. The haunting wail of the female singer clashes perfectly with the low timbre of the tabla, it honestly felt like they were making the red sun rise over the River Ganges.
With the sun now burning down on us, we retreated to our room to escape it’s heat and rest. In the evening I was intent on venturing to the burning ghats on some sort of gruesome impulse. I wanted to see a body burn, I can’t eloquently explain why. We wandered through the tiny streets of the Old Town enjoying watching life pass us buy. Varanasi has a great talent for hypnotising you in its intense smells of sandalwood and shit. Saying that, the cleanliness of the holy city has improved greatly since Modi came into power. Varanasi is his home town and he has subsequently increased the funding for the cities council improving the everyday standard of living for it’s citizens.
Walking down the ghats I could see in the distance huge flames which were billowing thick black smoke into the atmosphere. They took over the horizon, brighter and bigger than anything else. There was something jarring about seeing apparent bonfires in 40 degree heat, the oddity of it added to the mystery. When we arrived at Harishchandra Ghat, three funeral were in full swing, the mourners stood around the pyres chatting, eating and observing their family member engulfed in sandalwood and flame, seemingly unfazed by the wave upon wave of intense heat. We gaped at the scene open mouthed. It was nothing like I thought it would be. The pyres burn for 24 hours, 7 days a week, 12 months a year and thus work in machine like efficiency. There was no one weeping yet at the same time no jubilance. No smell of burning flesh, no line up of the dead rotting in broad day light. Just life and death working together to keep moving and progressing through time. The flames of the pyres grew so high that the bodies were out of sight and out of mind. They were just ashes and dust, now it was their soul that remained in the minds of loved ones. Although, just as we were about to turn away, I saw a pair of swollen grey legs sticking out of a smaller pile of wood. Transfixed by the first dead body I had ever seen I stared at the lifeless extremities which a street dog had just stared to sniff around. The image was so absurd that it was almost comical. There was nothing gruesome, scary or dark about leaving the material world here, it was just a part of the intricate cogs of life and death in the ancient city of Varanasi.