My first impressions of Varanasi were not favourable. It had all of the characteristics of Indian cities that I had grown to hate; that damned beeping, the filthy streets and touts constantly on the look-out to con as much money out of you as possible. We instantly got helplessly lost trying to find our hotel down the labyrinthine streets – as an offer to help here is as good as a declaration of intent to do you wrong.
There were parts of streets that you had to wade through thick smogs of flies and were populated with the frequent procession of chanting men, carrying aloft their deceased loved ones wrapped in orange and gold. And if the people weren’t dead, then they were near to death. Elderly Indians flocked to Varanasi to live out their last days, ready to achieve instant enlightenment if they snuffed it within the city walls. It felt like by just being present within the city, my life was slowly being sapped from my body. And no, this isn’t the set of some apocalyptic nightmare. It is in fact a city, in which all manner of people manage to live their lives and even come to revere.
The presence of these hordes of dead bodies can be explained by one of the most thriving businesses in Varanasi; the burning ghats by the river Ganges. This 24-hour cremation service rakes in over £100,000 per year for the family whose solemn duty it is to run it. As always the Ganges exercises a spiritual pull, and also lures pilgrims to bathe in it’s refuse filled depths – and all of these fascinatingly shocking rites can be viewed by boat trip on the river itself.
Initially, as the rickety wooden boat was rowed towards me, I thought there is no way in hell I am getting in there. And this fear of capsizing into the watery graveyard of humans, animals and wastage, stayed with me for the entire boat trip. For as we made our slow way along the river, our guide relished telling us of the dead holy men, children and pregnant women that were awarded the special honour of being thrown ‘straight in the Ganga’ – no cremation necessary. As the sun set, the rhythmic sploshing of the rowing and the fact that the main source of light was now the burning pyres of the deceased, gave a deeply unnerving and forbidding atmosphere. Being suspended between the murky water and these burning beacons was a spine-chilling experience I won’t easily forget.
And you may ask yourself, why then did we take up the offer of a sunrise boat trip (the short answer was that it was free with the hotel) but the experience was completely different. The steady change of light from grey to orange and the warmth of the sun, made the pyres seem less austere, and they faded into the back of my mind as the sight of hundreds of families, clad in multicolours, bathed together happily in order to cleanse their souls. The fact that these people’s beliefs led them to bathe in this filthy, cold water – and even enjoy the experience, in the full knowledge that floating only metres away were the ashes, if not corpses, of their fellow country men – was quite wondrous to me. The living accepted, lived alongside and even bathed with the dead here. These scenes were enough to make me question my attitude to death. What is taboo in the West, is embraced and part of the everyday here. Why should we accept the fear instilled in us from an early age? And why shouldn’t we laugh merrily as our children gulp down a hearty breakfast of sewage water? Oh wait, too far.
Varansi is a city of many moods – catch it in a bad one, and you’ll wonder why you’re here, wading through a landfill to get to your hotel. Catch it in a good mood, and you can experience one of the most unique cities on earth. Varanasi is a must-see for those who wish to gain a full picture of India. Just as death is an inextricable part of life, Varanasi is an essential part of India.