A place of ablution in the waters of the sacred Ganges, India

A place of ablution in the waters of the sacred Ganges, India

Varanasi, aka Benares (a distorted European pronunciation), aka Kashi, – a major city on the Ganges River (1.2 million people), in the eastern state of Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi is the oldest inhabited city on earth, dating back to the 11th century B.C., a place of shock and attraction at the same time. It is undoubtedly the spiritual capital of India, founded by Shiva himself and visited by the Pandavas of the Mahabharata and by Buddha (at the time when it was the capital of the Kashi Kingdom). Varanasi is the most sacred city in Hinduism because it is the center of the earth and the deceased find “moksha” – liberation from the cycle of births and deaths (the Wheel of Sansara) here. Therefore it is related to the Hindu custom of cremation after death and placing one’s ashes in the waters of the Ganges for redemption.

A place of ablution in the waters of the sacred Ganges, India - Photo 2

A place of ablution in the waters of the sacred Ganges, India

Clearly, not all relatives of a deceased Hindu can afford to come to Varanasi for this rite. Nor can many residents of Varanasi. Nevertheless, there are ghats, stone staircases that descend directly to the water for the cremation rites. Every day in Varanasi about 200 corpses are burned on the ghats (according to statistics, this is 0.2% of all deaths in India). Women do not participate in the funeral, the corpses are smeared with a special composition, sandalwood or teak is used as wood, a male relative lights the fire, and the rest of the service is provided by the caste of local untouchables – they traditionally manage this action and pass it on by inheritance.

A place of ablution in the waters of the sacred Ganges, India - Photo 3

A place of ablution in the waters of the sacred Ganges, India

To get enough experience of this city, to visit it should be set aside two days, because it is important events that take place in the evening and early in the morning. While the cremation takes place in the evening, in the morning the pilgrims take a dip in the Ganges, starting their next day. In addition, in the evening there is a ceremony of worship of the river Ganges with chants (aarti) . Thus, visiting the ghats is an opportunity to feel the spirit of India (“spectacle of death” at sunset and “spectacle of life” at dawn).

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The site of washing in the waters of the sacred Ganges, India - Photo 4

A place of ablution in the waters of the sacred Ganges, India

For non-Hindus, entrance to the ghats is free, but you can not take pictures of the cremation. You can take a boat trip on the Ganges – it guarantees you an unforgettable experience in the sight of floating corpses in the water. According to tradition, there are five categories of people whose bodies are not to be cremated, but simply lowered into the middle of the Ganges (these are saints, children under seven years, pregnant women, lepers and snake-bitten). Hindus are philosophical about this. There is so much silver in the Ganges, according to some scholars, that no human remains can contaminate this river, sacred to India.

A place of ablution in the waters of the sacred Ganges, India - Photo 5

A place of ablution in the waters of the sacred Ganges, India

There are sunrise tours, sunset tours, northbound (downstream) and southbound (upstream) tours. They start at the Dasashwamedh ghat and usually you pass the Manikarnika cremation ghat. The boat tour usually lasts 1 hour, cost 30-50 Rs per person depending on the type of boat.

A place of ablution in the waters of the sacred Ganges, India

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

There are three bridges over the Ganges in Varanasi. One of them is visible in the distance.

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

Again we find ourselves in front of the central ghats of Varanasi.

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

Darbhangaghat – its towers and turrets were built in the early 20th century by two bhikar princes and stand out brightly against the background of the waterfront. In the photos, by the way, it is clearly visible that now the Ganges waters come almost to the houses – and in the dry season the level is lower by 10-15 meters, and the lower part of the stepped embankments, not visible now.

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

The majestic palace built by Raja Man Singh stands above Manmandirghat. It is interesting that later another ruler, Maharaja Jaisingh II of Jaipur, arranged an observatory in it.

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Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

The sun rises higher and higher. Boats, ghats, temples and palaces of Varanasi are bathed in its rays.

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

Finally, we arrive at the most eerie place on the waterfront – Manikarnikaghatu near where huge piles of firewood piled on the bank of the Ganges, and a little further stands a crematorium and burning funeral pyres, where every day cremate hundreds of dead.

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

An attendant is tending the coals with a huge bamboo stick. This funeral pyre is almost burnt out – if you want, you can see the remains of a human skull in the depths of the wood. But – that’s if you look from above, from the crematorium, not from this angle. :))

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

Behind the crematorium downriver there are interesting structures Skindiaghat. It is written that they turned out to be so heavy that they collapsed into the Ganges in the early 20th century, and were not rebuilt until 1937.

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

We dock at the shore. The Ganges is sacred. The presence near the crematorium and funeral pyres does not embarrass the Hindus – bathe right there.

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

Some of the boats bring wood for the furnaces, and others take tourists for a ride.

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

Now – a little stroll through the streets and take a closer look at the crematorium.

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

The streets of Varanasi are teeming with all kinds of people – sometimes strange and rather marginal by our standards. It’s hard for the uninitiated to understand what they’re all looking for near the crematoriums. It is written, for example, that in Varanasi there is a special caste – ascoris, ascetics, who deny all norms of morality, live directly on the cremation sites and even practice cannibalism, believing that this way they can reach enlightenment.

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

Near the crematorium live packs of corpse-eating dogs that feed on unburned human remains.

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

There is a huge pile of wood for cremation.

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

For a modest fee, you can go up to the crematorium itself – but it is forbidden to photograph the furnaces and the area where the dead are burned. But from the upper platform of the crematorium there are very beautiful views of the Ganges and the embankments of Varanasi.

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Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

On the right, where people are sitting, in the wide-angle lens managed to catch part of the site, where the ovens are and where the cremation actually takes place.

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

Not every Hindu can afford to incinerate himself in the holy place of Varanasi – the queue for cremation in such a holy place is long, and the wood is very expensive and in short supply. My companion, a worker at the crematorium and concurrently a servant of a local hospice, said that the cost of a log is 500 rupees (500 rubles) and asked me to donate the money for the cremation of poor people. It would also clear my karma, and in exchange he would let me take any photo I wanted in the cremation area. I paid. One photo for one log, and the employee made sure I didn’t take more than one photo. One is one. I took a long shot and ended up taking a close-up picture of the crematorium furnace.

This is the picture.

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

After a good deal of exploration of the crematorium, we return to the streets of Varanasi. However, after the crematorium you’re already on such a roll that you feel quite at ease here. :))

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

Varanasi. The holy city of India. Dawn over the Ganges. Ghats, ablutions, and crematoriums

At the end of the walk we stopped at a small store selling local oils and incense. Among other things I was offered to buy aromatic oils for skin on the basis of opium – they smelled really good, but I have doubts that tomorrow Sheremetev’s customs officers and their sniffing four-legged friends will appreciate them at the same level. So I politely declined the opium oils – and then just in case I washed my hand well in the place where they put the “sample copy” on it in the hotel – why don’t you prove “you are not a bastard”? :))

And so – on that lofty note, it was time to say goodbye to India. During the week we have seen a lot, but cooler than Varanasi, probably nothing will “throw up” anyway. :)) So it’s time to go home – to cleanliness, to a quiet and peaceful Moscow in comparison with India, in such a pleasant October coolness, and of course to the family and friends. An evening flight from Varanasi to Delhi, an overnight connection to a direct flight from Moscow, and we were home! With this post I end my series of reports on India. Of course, the country is very special and not for everyone, but I really liked it! And to all who read and watched – thank you for your attention! :))

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