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Here are a few photos from my brief visit to Varanasi in February 2020. It was just when the plague hit and no one knew what it was or what would happen, so people were scared. I figured, if I'm gonna die, it might as well be in Varanasi!
Many Hindus believe that if they die and are cremated on the ghats of Varanasi they will be liberated from the cycle of Samsara and attain Moksha, freedom. As a non-Hindu I may be exempt from this specifically, but it still seems like an auspicious place to die!
In any case, I made it out alive.
My time in Varanasi was a little uncomfortable (for me, a poor Westerner but one accustomed to what the average Indian would consider to be posh), however, the long journey went as smoothly as one could wish, under the circumstances.
I arrived by plane at night into this ancient holy city, and took a taxi through the dark crowded maze of streets. I remember the heavy feeling of my heart hardening as I observed the seemingly endless people and what I judged to be hovels or squalid places of business- food carts with snacks deep-fried in cheap, overheated vegetable oils, fabric stores, and an infinite number of tiny shops. I felt mental and emotional coldness as I steeled myself for the duration of my 2-day stay in legendary Varanasi.
The hard emotional state of which I speak is something I have long recognized in myself, and is a large part of the impetus behind my years of seeking healing via spiritual pilgrimage and practice. In Varanasi (and in Kolkata, of which I will also write) this psycho-mental state became painfully clear. I was able to perceive it and to hold and examine it, turning it over in my mind like I might a faceted jewel in my hand.
I had long wanted to visit this oldest of continuously-inhabited cities, which is also known as Benares, or fondly as “Kashi”. As the favorite abode of Shiva, it is thought to hover between dimensions, somewhere between earth and more mystical realms. Kali is also at home in Kashi, and dances there in the world-famous cremation grounds located on its ghats, which are the stone steps that line the banks of the river Ganga.
The Ganga, or Ganges as it is sometimes called, is one of the most holy rivers in India, and is worshipped as the very form of the Goddess herself in elaborate fire rituals called aarti. These popular fire aarti are held every morning and evening on the ghats.
My main destination was Manikarnika Ghat, the main cremation ground. I went to meditate on death, and to make a sacred pilgrimage in devotion to Ma Kali. I found her!
Cameras are not allowed in the burning grounds, but what I saw there is inscribed deep in my memory. I saw corpses brightly painted with colored powders and covered in red and orange flowers carried on bamboo stretchers through narrow alleys to the pyres. Pallbearers run by at a rapid pace chanting the name of God, Ram, and other mantras I couldn’t make out, and passersby are forced to press themselves quickly into crevices in the walls of the alley. I sat on a low stool with the locals, drinking delicious chai out of a tiny terracotta cup, as the bodies of the dead were ceremoniously rushed by.
I drank more chai sitting on the steps of the cremation ground itself, chatting with a local who I think was named Om Prakash. It’s hard to remember the names of all the people who chatted me up there! It was common for young Indian men to spot me and strike up a conversation, telling me about the cremation rituals taking place as we watched. This particular guy was quite friendly and bought me a chai, while our eyes burned with the smoke and we sat as close to the heat as was bearable.
Perched on these stairs, I observed many things I have never seen before. My experience was far removed from my normal day-to-day in America!
It is said that there is never not a body burning on Manikarnika Ghat. “Dead bodies” as they are called somewhat coarsely by the locals, are constantly being “churned and burned” by low-caste workers who poke at the burning remains with big bamboo sticks. Pyres are stacked with different kinds of wood according to what can be afforded by the family of the deceased, with fragrant sandalwood being prized. The mourners have shaved heads and sometimes wear only a satiny ivory cloth wrapped around their loins.
After the corpse is dipped in the water of the sacred Ganges, it is placed on the pyre for the cremation ritual. Mourners and priests walk five times around the body, signifying the five elements of earth, water, fire, air, and aether. The fires are all lit from one fire that is sacred to Shiva, which has been kept burning continuously for hundreds, some say thousands of years. I saw this fire during an impromptu tour by one of the men who seem to spend all their days there.
It takes about three hours to cremate a human corpse, and sometimes the flames are stoked with ghee. There were twelve or thirteen fires burning where I sat, and I could watch all stages of the process. When I first walked the path between the pyres, I felt the intense heat and was somewhat startled to look down and see a human foot protruding from the fire, just next to me. Then my eyes were blinded with stinging smoke and I was guided out the other side. Later, I saw a skull powerfully squirt liquid out of its eye socket with a loud hissing sound much like an Indian pressure cooker!
Oftentimes, there is a remaining chunk of corpse that will not burn. I was told that in men it is the chest area and in women the hips. This is where our respective centers of gravity are, where the body is particularly dense. These chunks are then rowed out and dropped in the river...hence why I declined my opportunity for a boat ride, as I preferred to not touch the water or even risk getting splashed with a droplet (although I did get splashed anyhow). Nonetheless, devout Hindus bathe in droves in what is to them a very sacred and holy river.
I stayed in the burning grounds as long as I could, often sitting silent and alone, for indeterminate periods of time, in a state akin to meditation. As I left Manikarnika ghat for the last time, I remember thinking to myself, “Hmm, I feel pretty normal.”
Moments later, however, I was plunged unexpectedly into what was perhaps the most surreal experience I have had in my life! And believe me, that is saying something. But, that is a story for another day.
Thank you for your time! I hope you enjoyed this blog. Stay tuned for more!