Varanasi Ghats, India

India – Trip

Independent travel in India and not only. Blog of Tatiana Ostashevskaya

The Sacred Varanasi – the heart of India, the city of life and death

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There are 84 ghats in Varanasi. One of the most famous is Manikarnika, the city’s main open-air crematorium on the banks of the Ganges. Here people come from all over India to cremate their dead relatives. To die in Varanasi and be burned at the stake here is very cool, it immediately frees you from the rest of your incarnations.

Read the beginning: Varanasi (India) is the holy city of Shiva on the Ganges River Benares… Kashi… The city of the great Shiva. One of the oldest living cities on Earth

Manikarnika, Varanasi’s most famous ghat

Being cremated in Varanasi is so cool that some people travel here from afar, feeling their end approaching. There are special rooms for such people in Varanasi, where they live while they await their passing. Twenty-four hours a day, several fires burn simultaneously on the Manikarnika. The fire has not gone out here for centuries.

View of Manikarnika from the water

Varanasi. Manikarnika ghat

Bonfires at Manikarnika

Varanasi fires

I’m not going to build passion, describing all sorts of horror stories about these fires, I did not cycle on them, tried to pass by, it was uncomfortable to stand staring, and it’s not about the physical component of the process. When you travel around the country for a long time, you gradually become immersed in its atmosphere, its culture, rituals, traditions, they resonate in your heart, you gradually begin to think in its categories, and everything is perceived differently. You walk through Manikarnika, you look at these bonfires… Generally, you look rather calmly… Well, yes, the fire, the remains of man in the fire… Soon they will burn down, only ashes will remain, they will be scattered over Ganga, and nothing will remain, only memory… Quite a reasonable decision. Very reasonable for a country of this size and climate. Much more sensible than kilometers of cemeteries. I, too, would like to have my ashes scattered over the river (better later, of course), so that there would be no mound with a fence, no binding for my children, no deterrent for them, no “we can’t leave this town – my mother’s grave is here”. It’s wrong, let there be none of that, let there be only memory. A bright memory and a joy. So these bonfires are normal and reasonable. And yet, this City crushed me. After three days, I wanted to get out of there, I just couldn’t stand it, it was so sad and depressing. I could not understand what was going on – just at night in the hotel you go to bed, and such an immense sadness comes over you that it is impossible to sleep, you want to escape from this city before it completely crushed you, and you clearly feel that all, I have had enough of India, I no longer want, enough, this is my last visit. (It was only when we left Varanasi that I was released, and not at once.) Apparently, in spite of the fact that the mind understands the reasonableness and logic of these fires, the energy of death still presses down. There is too much death in this city. I didn’t even think it would be felt so keenly. It’s not even the fires themselves that have that effect, but the oppressive general atmosphere – the crowds of silently standing men in white clothes, the huge stacks of firewood… And then there are the narrow streets of the Old Town…

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The Old City – the central part of ancient Varanasi

I had the feeling that there was nothing to breathe in these narrow streets, that the air there hadn’t changed in centuries. Also, I constantly felt a kind of intense love for all those people who live there, and it made me feel really bad at heart.

The Narrow Streets of Varanasi

The Labyrinths of the Old City

Old City

Near the main temple in Varanasi

Varanasi Kids

Be sure to walk the labyrinths of the Old Town. And not to get lost, take a compass, because you would have no other way to find your way around.

Varanasi Alley

Those boys flying kites… I’ve never seen boys flying kites with such fanaticism anywhere else in India. Everywhere – even on the steps of the crematorium – they launch and launch their kites, sometimes they fail, the ropes get tangled, the kite clings to something, and the whole crowd tries to get it out and launch it again… It seems like nothing unusual… But in Varanasi this picture just tore my heart.

Kite flying

Varanasi is a mind blowing city…

Among other things, you can feel the majesty of this City with every cell, its immense inner strength. I had no such feeling in Delhi or Mumbai. But at the same time, there is a helplessness and a complete nakedness of the nerves. And those morning prayers waist-deep in the river … For a long time I could not calmly look at these photos, my heart ached. In general, after three days we ran away from there. Not really. In the evening we had to go back, because I usually buy all the tickets for rail travel in advance, from home. This time, too, the tickets were bought in advance. No running away. In the evening we returned to Varanasi. We stayed there for six days. Perhaps that is too long for my first acquaintance with the City. I can say for myself: Varanasi is the strongest, most indelible impression of that trip. It was my second trip to India and it lasted for five weeks and there were many things to see and do in those five weeks, but Varanasi was the most powerful in its effect.

Varanasi Ghat

Bonfires aren’t just burning on Manikarnika. There is another place just upstream, Harishchandra ghat. Here, too, bodies are cremated, but not in such quantities as at Manikarnika. And a little further away is the crematorium. We didn’t know of its existence, and when we first went for a walk on ghats along Ganga and saw it – we thought it was something else: on its steps the boys were enthusiastically flying kites, and on the stairs for some reason there were black buffalos. I joked: “It looks like a crematorium, the cows are in line, and when the people run out, the cows start. It was our first Varanasian morning. My mind could not yet comprehend how one could joyfully fly kites on the steps of such an institution. Then the eye gradually became accustomed to such images, the brain gradually began to adapt and understand that in this city life and death are two facets of one phenomenon, they coexist harmoniously, there is nothing forbidden, it is the norm, this is the way of the city. One evening at sunset we were sitting on the bank of the Ganges. Nearby, on a concrete platform, there was a man lying head over heels covered in green plaid. He was lying on his back, stretched out. We watched for quite a long time, he did not move once. We sat there thinking, “We’ve got to do something. A man died, it’s going to be night soon, we have to report it somewhere. We couldn’t just get up and leave. A cow came meditatively from somewhere, approached the man, stood, thought, and lay down next to him. Then a dog came and guarded them. The man still showed no signs of life. Quite a lot of time had passed, night was coming on, and we were still sitting on the steps, waiting for someone to approach him. We must find a policeman… Suddenly the green bedspread stirred, the man got up (the cow got up with him), shook his bedspread, wrapped it around himself, and walked past us unsuspecting. I was ready to jump for joy around him with shouts of “Yay, this one’s alive!”

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Varanasi. The Man with the Green Veil

Although many tourists from all over the world come to Varanasi, it is not what you would call a tourist city. It lives its life without being fake, without being flirtatious, without being turned into a tourist attraction. Tourists pass through as it were, only lightly touching it, and the city continues to live its inscrutable life for three millennia.

This entry was posted on March 15, 2014 by Tatiana in Travel Like a Quest, Uttar Pradesh and tagged Ganga, ghats, India.

Varanasi Ghats – life and death at the sacred Ganges

Because of this, many wealthy people come here in their old age to live out their last days and to be devotees here to the fire on the steps at the edge of the Ganges.

Sacred water from the Ganges is sold in bottles and pots – pilgrims can take with them a little miraculous water to poison all the neighbors at home.

But an enterprising young man opened a small tea shop right on the steps of the ghat. I wonder where he gets water for tea.

And this gentleman went out to the ghat just to read a newspaper in the fresh air.

Young men are going to play cricket on the steps (in India, this strange game is as popular as baseball in America).

Some are building boats here. Plenty of space, good weather. No workshop is needed.

So many people come to these steps to perform religious rituals by the water, unknown to me. Nothing is clear, but it looks very colorful.

And here are the guys talking to their guru. He must be telling them universal truths. Too bad I don’t understand their language, I could have been enlightened.

A young couple enjoying a nice day and communicating with each other.

There’s even a massage parlor! Anything is possible on a ghat. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a lawyer, or doctor’s office nearby. (Maybe together?)

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And some people just come here to think about eternal things.

High walls rise above the ghats. You have to climb ladders about 15 meters into the city itself. That’s because during the rainy season, the Ganges floods and the water level rises very high. Sometimes several meters.

Local artists use these walls for graffiti, and hotels and hostels of all stripes and calibers sculpt their ads here. These works last a couple of seasons, then the water washes them away and it’s time to renovate.

From above all these old palaces have long ago been turned into hotels. By Indian standards, the room overlooking the Ganges can cost $ 30-40 dollars a day (for comparison, literally a block away, you can rent something in half the price). But what a pleasure to sit in the morning on the balcony overlooking the Ganges and ghats.

On such a balcony you can take a shower! All the water will flow down through a primitive pipe. Maybe even no one gets on his head, and quietly flows into the sacred river.

In the winter the fogs and smog mingle here, and often you can’t see the far bank of the Ganges at all. It seems that your balcony is a part of some wall at the very edge of the world, and then everything dissolves into a white abyss.

At dawn, the sun appears out of the haze high above the horizon; you just can’t see it before. You can see the far shore early in the morning.

But by noon you can see it very well. But there is nothing there – just a sand spit. Very strange – such a contrast between the two banks. It’s as if the Ganges is not sacred on the other side, and no one needs to cremate the dead there.

The best way to see the ghats of Varanasi is to take a boat ride along them around eight or nine in the morning, when the sun is still beautifully illuminating the shoreline of the old palaces. Step out onto the waterfront, and the captains of the many boats surround you, offering their services. Usually ask 200 rupees for an hour ride (that’s a little less than $3). Their boats are mostly non-motorized, rowed by hand.

From the water you can see how colorful Varanasi is. The carved towers of the palaces and temples create a very beautiful jumble, reminiscent of a fairy tale city.

There is heavy traffic on the river all day. Boats of all kinds float back and forth.

Traveling with a child to Asia

Most of them are tourists. You can find a boatman who speaks good English. He will cost more, but he can play the role of a guide.

Some boats carry crowds of tourists at once. Flocks of birds flock to these, hoping to grab something tasty.

And not just birds. Various peddlers in the boats board the tourist boats and offer the unfortunate captives to buy their unwanted junk.

Sometimes they come up to you and say, “Take this, give it to the sacred Ganges. Don’t take such things. Why throw additional garbage into the river? Especially because despite all the assurances, these dudes will still end up asking you for money. (Sooner or later in India almost everyone asks for money.)

You do come across some very unusual yachts. Why am I laughing, though? At that age, I would have given a lot to have a boat like that. Clumsy, but my own!

And this is interesting stuff. It’s a boat sweeper. Cleans up water from garbage in a very inefficient way. It resembles somewhat the snowplows of my childhood, only instead of dumping everything into a truck, it keeps the trash on its own.

Well, here we are at the most interesting ghat. I didn’t ask the boatman to head here for nothing. This ghat is called Manikarnika. The bodies of the dead are cremated here round the clock. It is said that the fires of Manikarnika ghat have been burning non-stop for several thousand years.

There are huge stacks of firewood on the steps here. They are used for cremation. The wood varies, some more expensive, some cheaper, depending on how it burns and what wood it comes from. It’s like funeral homes try to work with clients of varying wealth.

As a rule, relatives of the deceased stand over the bonfire. According to tradition, they should rejoice that the deceased has received such a high honor, to be cremated on the banks of the Ganges. It is forbidden to weep here, lest the soul of the guilty party, God forbid, decide to linger, seeing the grief of the relatives. That is why such ceremonies are seldom attended by women.

It is inconvenient to take it off the water, but there is no other way out. At the Manikarnika ghat, there are guys who run roughshod over any photographer, demanding that he pay huge sums of money immediately (“out of respect for the family of the deceased”).

“Don’t even think about getting your camera out here!” Yasha warned me as we passed through here at night. There weren’t many people around, and it was dark, and there weren’t many campfires either. “Never mind,” Yasha said emphatically. “I don’t know how they do it, but they’re bound to spot you, and they’ll come at you. We almost got in a fight last time.”

In theory it’s possible to get permission to shoot from the chief of police, but it’s a long process, during which you’d probably have to bribe at several levels. Especially since it is rumored that the local mafia does not accept such permits anyway, and demands money. Knowing all this, I decided to take it off the water, out of harm’s way.

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What was my surprise when I saw a very European-type guy with an oversized DSLR, snapping on the beach right next to the fire! (He was also blocking my fire!)

When I got off the beach, I went up to him and asked him how he managed to get permission to shoot at the Manikarnik.

“I had two choices. Sit in that hole for three weeks trying to get a permit from the local police chief. Or give these guys $500 for half an hour of filming. I decided nerves and time were worth more to me than money, and here I am, as you can see, shooting with no problems.”

There is another ghat in Varanasi where the dead are cremated, called Harishchandra. Here it’s easier to take pictures. I was allowed to take pictures of the bonfire being prepared without any problem.

“See how beautifully the place is decorated with colored sand?” one of the local workers told me, “That means a rich man will be burned. From a high caste.”

I asked how much such a cremation cost. “Expensive! Very expensive! About ten thousand rupees!” he exclaimed. That’s about $150.

On such a prepared pile of firewood, the relatives carry the cadaver. He is wrapped in a special cloth, and hung with wreaths. The body is dipped in the water of the Ganges, then placed on the fire, and another pile of firewood is placed on top. After that, oil (don’t ask) is put on top, and the fire is lit. Experienced kramators control the process so that the body burns to the ground.

The funerary wreaths put aside are eaten by sacred cows.

But let’s move on from the sad to the pleasant. Every evening on one of the central ghats there is a colorful Arati ceremony. Here a troupe of talented Hindus (probably Brahmans) sing songs and perform elaborate choreography with flaming and smoking lamps.

It looks very cool. Clearly the guys are experienced, it’s not the first time they’ve done this. I wonder where they rehearse.

Tried to pinstagram the video (if you subscribed to my Instagram, you would have seen it a month ago!)

Crowds of people gather to watch the spectacle, some sitting on the ghat in front of the stage, others watching from boats near the shore.

The priestly artists perform the ceremony with dignity.

Some look just like the heroes of Indian epics! It’s a very colorful show and not to be missed if you’re in Varanasi.

During the Arati ceremony, gray-haired elders walk through the crowd begging tourists for money. They often give.

Such is the interesting life in the ghats of Varanasi. But in fact it is much more colorful and colorful than I have managed to convey here. Especially since, in addition to the ghakhas, there’s a whole city!

I think you have to go and see for yourself. Just do not go swimming.

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