Varanasi: India’s capital of death
Upon hearing that I was going to Varanasi, some of my acquaintances sighed enviously, “Oh, Varanasi, I wish I could go back there!” It was strange for me to hear that, because these people are not poor: expensive cars, better hotels, and restaurants. What could they possibly like about Varanasi? After all, it is a city of death and unsanitary conditions! Here the corpses float on the Ganges, here the dead are burned on bonfires, there are narrow streets where the sidewalks never see the light, the houses are covered with centuries-old mold and bends – what normal person would come here?
Even I, having been to some of the worst cities in the world, was wary of Varanasi! I am writing this post now, flying up to Delhi. I spent almost three days in Varanasi, and I can say that it is one of the most amazing cities in the world that I will definitely return to! It’s hard not to fall in love with Varanasi if you come here with the right attitude.
Varanasi is the capital of death: every day thousands of sick, old, and infirm people flock here from all over India to die on the banks of the Ganges and escape the wheel of Sansara. Hindus believe that those who die in this sacred city exit the cycle of karmic rebirths and go straight to heaven. It is here that for several thousand years the bonfires on the Ganges embankment have been continuously burning on which corpses are burned. This is where life and death are so close to each other that you are no longer surprised by corpses floating in the river or people bathing in the same river.
But death here is not repulsive or squeamish. Over three days I saw several dozen dead people: some floating in the river, some rotting on the sandy shore, some being carried by relatives on the roof of a minibus, some burning to death on a fire. And this death is in no way shocking; it is part of this city and its amazing culture.
Varanasi is mysterious and amazingly beautiful. I don’t remember seeing a more beautiful promenade anywhere. For nearly seven kilometers along the western bank of the Ganges, the promenade descends to the water with numerous stairways, terraces, piers, passageways, arches and galleries. The steep cliffs of palaces, temples and hotels overhang the sacred Ganges. The picture is so unusual, as if you were transported to the Middle Ages.
01. the image of the embankment has not changed for centuries. Somewhere, of course, new hotels or apartment buildings are completed, but they are almost invisible among the palaces and temples.
02. The water level of the Ganges is not constant: in the summer the river floods, so the embankment here are ledges, so that almost at any time there was access to water. But at the end of summer, even these steps are not enough, and the embankment disappears under the water.
The waterfront is not accessible to cars or the ubiquitous mopeds, only to boats. This makes Varanasi look like Venice in some places.
There are 84 ghats (stepped descents to the water) in Varanasi, but only two are used to burn the dead. On the others, normal daily life goes on: people do their laundry, bathe, brush their teeth and drink from the river. Hindus revere the Ganges as the embodiment of holiness and purity, so no one has any concerns about the quality of the river’s water. And the fact that half-burned human remains are dumped into the same water a few tens of meters away does not seem to frighten anyone.
This is the most famous ghat of Varanasi, the Manikarnika. It has a cult status: according to the legends, the funeral pyres have been burning here continuously for two and a half thousand years. And the fire, from which to this day are blazing fires, the people gave himself Shiva. It still burns in the temple, located not far from the ghat.
05. Firewood is piled everywhere.
06. Cremation on the banks of the Ganges is sacred to Hindus, so many believers are willing to save money for the ritual throughout their lives. It costs a lot by local standards, about $500. The most expensive component is firewood, about 300-400 kilograms of it is needed. Sandalwood is also added to the fires. If there is no money, you can add a small twig. The rich allow themselves to add large logs of sandalwood to the fires, and a special chic is a full sandalwood fire, which can cost several thousand dollars. The problem is that it is illegal to cut down sandalwood trees in India. Poor people often have to beg on the streets to get the cheapest set of firewood.
07. According to Hindu customs, a dead person must be cremated within 24 hours. The body is rubbed with incense, wrapped in expensive cloths, placed on a stretcher, decorated with flowers and jewels, and carried to the banks of the Ganges. On the way people chant the mantra “Ram nam sagahe,” a request to grant the deceased moksha, liberation from the wheel of samsara. Such funeral processions in the streets of Varanasi are commonplace. Sometimes the corpses are brought in by boat. Someone stole a lifeboat from a ship and now they’ve converted it into a corpse carriage.
08. According to the funeral mafia, about 300 corpses are burned here every day. Cremations usually last about five hours.
09. To be honest, I don’t really understand how 300 corpses a day can be burned here. I counted about 30 fires in total. That is, even in ideal conditions it would be possible to burn 150 corpses a day. But there was no special queue, and not all the bonfires were burning. At the same time, the workers bragged that some of them burned even 1000 corpses!
10. Relatives take part in the ceremony. You have to shave off all the hair from your face before you start.
11. The corpse is richly decorated and waits for its bonfire.
12. it is dipped in the Ganges and then carried to the bonfire.
13. Here you can see the corpse being stacked. It is almost invisible among the wood, and when the fire is lit, you can’t see anything at all. The fire is lit by the eldest relative (husband, father, brother, etc.) Before this he goes around the fire five times.
14. Bonfires. The funeral mafia has a double business. On the one hand, you have to take dough from relatives for cremation. It costs about $400 to $500. But with the ritual everything is clear. The second business is taking money from tourists, or, more precisely, selling photo permits.
That’s much more interesting. On the Internet there are a lot of horror stories about the terrible local customs. Someone writes that the fee for a single shutter release is close to $ 100, someone tells how he almost got beaten by the crowd when trying to take a photo. Things may change here from time to time, but I’ll tell you how things are today.
15. Actually, the only two places in town that are guarded from lenses are the two places where they burn corpses. You can hardly shoot inconspicuously. You have to understand that for the locals, you are like prey for a hunter. You may be caught right away, or you may be lured closer and “allowed” to take a picture. Then, in fact, the scam will begin.
Although there is no official ban on filming, you just walk down the street, but the locals have a legend that the police prohibit filming here, so you immediately surrounded the crowd and will extort money, threatening to give the cops. About the cops, I think, bluff, and if you behave confidently, remove the frame, you can calmly leave. But the locals aren’t interested in you just walking away, they need your money, so you’ll be offered to take pictures!
16. I’ll tell you right away that I haggled a long time and negotiated on royal terms! I was allowed to walk around for 30 minutes and shoot whatever I wanted, with any technique, with no restrictions. At first they were asking for 20,000 rupees (about 1:1 exchange rate against the ruble), I ended up bringing it down to 6000. Judging from the experience of other photographers, it was a very good deal. It is important that you immediately understand what you want to shoot and how much you’re willing to pay for it. If you only need a few shots on your phone, then 500-1000 rupees is enough.
17. After the deal is done, you immediately get on the “white list” – the whole crowd that was greedily looking at your cameras stops paying attention to you, and you’re free to walk around and take pictures. I think I read that someone was getting almost an official permit from City Hall and the police, but I didn’t have time for the bureaucracy, so how relevant it is today, I don’t know.
18. There is also a way to take pictures for free – from the water. Although a few years ago the local mafia tried to prevent filming from the water, today the flow of boats with tourists is such that it is impossible to control it. After all, in addition to the cremation mafia is a mafia of boaters who also want to eat.
19. For 800 rupees, you can rent a motorboat that will take you along the river front of Varanasi and take you directly to the cremation site. The boats come pretty close to the shore, so the picture is good.
20. I guess I have to disappoint dead body lovers right away. There is no tin at the cremation. Initially the corpse is wrapped in a cloth, so you can’t see the body. When the body is placed on the fire, it’s covered with wood, and you can’t see anything in the fire, either. At most, the deceased’s leg may stick out of the fire, but it will quickly be pushed deeper into the fire with a stick. This is to say that impressionable, children and pregnant women have nothing to worry about, you can easily go and look, there is no tininess.
21. All that remains of the corpse is thrown into the Ganges. Not much is left: some chest from the men, and some pelvic bones from the women. To be honest, I don’t really understand why this is the division. Why do men’s pelvic bones burn and women’s do not? But there may also be jewelry in the ashes that relatives forgot to remove from the deceased, so special people literally wash gold from the ashes in the Ganges.
VARANASI. 24 hours of immersion in incredible history.
In 2016, after another trek in Nepal, Geno and I decided to fly home via India to visit Varanasi, one of the incredible centers of Indian culture, religion and history. A place where hundreds of millions of Indians want to die and be cremated. The Internet is full of information about Varanasi itself and its significance in Hindu life, and I will share our experience of getting to know the city and the people, which may be useful to future travelers to India.
We arrived in Varanasi from Delhi in the afternoon, and it was hot and incredibly stuffy outside. We take a higher-priced, air-conditioned cab and show the hotel reservation where we should be taken. Gena chooses a hotel near the Ganges, near the waterfront, where an open-air “crematorium” is open day and night. We drive along, enjoying the coolness. Suddenly, the cab driver stops and tells us that no more cars can go and passes us to the cyclist, with whom he has already arranged and settled accounts.
We continue on to another world on the bicycle rickshaw. It is hard for him, he is skinny like most Indians, but he doesn’t show it. After a while, he stops, tells us that it is impossible to go further, you can only walk, and passes us to the guy. We continue on foot. The town is almost 5,000 years old and the old part of it is a labyrinth of nooks and crannies to wander through on foot only and it is impossible to find anything without a local guide.
The guy told us that he is not a guide, but an owner of a fabric store and simply loves Russians, so he is ready to unselfishly give us as much time as we need. We show him the hotel reservation and the address, to which he recommended another one, since we chose the most awful and inconvenient for walking out. We go on his recommendation, scoring the room we paid for. We walked into the hotel and went to the Ganges, leaving our things at the reception and not checking out the room.
It was already getting dark, dozens of cremation bonfires were blazing on the bank, music was playing, circus artists were performing, and thousands of Hindus filled the free space. The shrewd onlookers wouldn’t let us photograph the cremations for free up close, so our guide suggested we take a boat and walk closer to the bonfires from the river side. As it turned out later we paid triple price for the boat rent, but we’ll find out about that tomorrow, and today we are grateful to an Indian friend who has abandoned all his business and showed us the town.
It’s almost 12:00 at night, we are tired and ask our guide to take us to the hotel. On the way he takes us to “his” store, just to look at fabrics. So as not to disturb our conversation with the sales clerks, he waits for us outside. We begin to guess that he is just a “helper”, who unselfishly helps in the hope of a kickback from the sellers. We take nothing and go to the hotel. We know that not bad views in the morning, at 5 o’clock, to which our guide, positioning himself as a store owner, in love with Russia, offers to meet us in the morning and show us the city. We do not refuse.
We go into the room offered by a hospitable Indian. Such terrible we have not seen even in Nepal. There are two anthills in the bathroom and thousands of red ants are scurrying all over the room. It felt like they were dragging the blanket across the bed in different directions. We had nothing to do, it was late, we had to get up soon, and somehow we got through the night.
At 5 am we wake up our acquaintance in the lobby and he takes us to the sacred Ganges, where, on his advice, we take a boat and get to the other side. We admire the panorama of the sacred city, the thousands of bathing Hindus, and marvel at their immunity. They wash their heads, wash their laundry, brush their teeth, bathe among the cows and unburned remains of human bodies. In this place, the Ganges is considered one of the dirtiest places in the world, but the locals don’t care. I think they even drank it.
One could write whole books about Varanasi – there are so many stories and phenomena here that we Europeans are not used to. But back to the story of the people, the tourists, who are cash cows for the locals. Our local “friend” continues to waste his precious time on us, demanding nothing in return. We start double-checking the prices of his recommendations – boats, breakfasts, tours. Everywhere the price is at least three times too high. We try to part with him – he does not want to. The entire hour, as glued to us and insists on continuing our friendship, new discoveries and experiences, from which we shortsightedly refused. Only the threat of calling a policeman standing nearby was able to stop him. After which he demands 10-20 dollars for a fuss. We gave him a tenner and sent him away.
We go with Gena wherever the eyes can see, we walk for a long time. We wander into places, where we have heard something about Europeans, but have not seen everything. Some of them touch us by the sleeve, some ask us to take photos. Incredible heat, stuffiness, lack of sleep exhausts capital, but no cab, and attempts to take a bicycle rickshaw to the airport are unsuccessful. All refer to that it is not their territory, in general, without a transfer can not do. Still don’t know if it’s a trick or not, so we keep looking.
We’ve been to Delhi, Agra (Taj Mahal) and Varanasi a couple of times. The portrait of a good Hindu already seems pretty clear to us – help for free, but get a kickback from those to whom we overpay. They are willing to take you for free to the other end of the city to the “local” store, waiting for you on the street just in the hope of earning something later. All their sincerity and friendliness is a mask, necessary to blunt the vigilance of the “whites. But despite the realization of all this, you realize that they have no way to make money otherwise. Tea is often sold in a clay cup, which is easier to break, because the cost of clay and manual labor is negligible compared to glassware. People make $1 to $3 a day, and that’s already considered a pretty good income. Read “Shantaram” – in it the author, an Australian, conveys like no other the life of the Indian bottom in which he spent years of his life.
By some miracle we run into a Russian-speaking Indian, who gratuitously on a motorcycle without a sidecar (note, three adults and backpacks) takes us to some bus station, where the tuk-tuk without change we get to the port. Of the hundreds of Indians we encountered, this guy turned out to be the only one unlike the rest.
A little background on the city. Varanasi is one of the most popular pilgrim destinations in India. Up to 200 people a day are cremated on the steps of the waterfront. The whole embankment is divided into zones – on this one they wash and dry laundry, on another they meditate, on a third they burn, etc. You can also see cremation in Kathmandu in Nepal on the sacred Bagmati River, but here it is accompanied by bathing, a festive atmosphere, and a huge number of temples. Every morning thousands of townspeople come to the shore to perform ablutions, bathe, drive or swim to the other side, etc.
One day was enough for us, because several factors came together – fatigue after the trek, heat and stuffiness, a dead hotel, knee-deep dirt and horrible smells in the city, limited money and time. But of course if you go there purposefully, you have to plan a few days. Have a good trip, everyone.