Hyderabad University, India
An Excerpt from her blog post “City of Dead”
Let me say, Varanasi is, hands down, my favorite city that I've yet visited in India. The city was originally dedicated to Shiva (the Hindu god I've always favored) and is situated right alongside the Ganges river. Of course, the Ganges is seen as an incredibly holy river and Hindus believe that if you wash in it you will be cleansed of all your sins, and if you're cleansed in it and burned by it after you die your soul immediately reaches "nirvana."
We stayed in Varanasi's Old City, which is located right behind the Ghats (which are the "steps" they burn the bodies on). The Old City wasn't so much a city as it was just a labyrinth of alleyways and narrow streets. Cars and rickshaws can't drive through it, so it's very quiet considering how conglomerated and populated the area is. Of course, it was all too normal for a single cow to block an entire street and we'd frequently have to step to the side when funeral processions passed, carrying the dead wrapped on a colorful stretcher over their heads.
Most bodies are burned at the Manikarnika Ghat. Passerbys are welcomed to stop and watch the cremations take place, but pictures are not allowed, something which you'll be told 1000 times if you have a camera over your shoulder. We were told that any Hindu is welcomed to be buried at the Ghats, unless it's a pregnant women, a child under 10, or someone who died of leprosy or a snake bite. Behind this ghat there is a huge well that is supposed to have been dug by Vishnu after his wife, Parvati, dropped her earring down it.
The Ganges has a reputation as being a horribly polluted and disgusting river and we found no evidence to the contrary. We didn't see any floating bodies, thank goodness, but hundreds of people bathe in it and drink the water. I had every intention of bathing in it as well, but then Diana talked me into reading some health reports about it. For instance, did you know that over 10million gallons of untreated sewage are dumped in the Ganges on a daily basis? I decided against having my soul purified.
Behind the ghats, in the Old City, there are a lot of shopping and restaurants catered to Western tourists and backpackers, so, like always, we ate really well in Varanasi. Its incredibly easy to get lost walking through the Old City. In fact, I think I only didn't get lost going back to our hostel just once or twice. One afternoon I took off on my own and purposefully got lost for a few hours. I had a blast and found a cafe with awesome scones that we went back to the next day.
The ghats stretch on for miles and miles, so walking along them and just taking in the sights was something we did nearly every day. That's got to be one of the reasons why I like Varanasi so much; yes, it is definitely a touristy city, but on the ghats it is just so unashamedly Hindu. Cremating bodies on the Ganges is something that has been going on for centuries, and even though a lot of white people come to watch, nobody stops what they're doing to try and accomodate for them.
Some of my friend's had a hard time watching the bodies being cremated, but it really didn't bother me and I found it beautifully fascinating. I find putting dead bodies in coffins and then in the ground incredibly disturbing to begin with, so I was just a lot more comfortable with the total acceptance of cremation. I just found it so awe-inspiring that no one was trying to hide the fact that this city has become famed for death. Even though its a daily occurrence all over the world, its very respected and ritualized here. It's just another part of the normal, Varanasi life.
When it gets down to it, I think thats what bothers me so much about death rituals in the United States. We treat death as if it's always so unexpected and sudden, and though it certainly can be, but really it is just as natural as birth. It's just the end of a cycle, but not the end of every cycle. Its just another beginning, and that beginning is sure made a hell of a lot easier if you aren't pumped up with embalming fluid, stuffed in a synthetic coffin and buried in the vicinity of thousands of other identical corpses.