Varanasi – City of Death

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Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon

Have you ever been to a place almost 30 years ago and go back and feel like nothing has changed?

I remember the first time I went to Varanasi, it was all about fire and water and little clay pots.

We are here to watch the open-air cremations (2-300 per day) by the sacred River Ganges. All Hindus wish for this end, the most holy, and the best opportunity for nirvana.

It is all quite dramatic! As I wander thru the narrow lanes of the old city splashed with offerings on shrines found in every nook and cranny and vendors selling strings of marigolds, incense, shrouds woven with gold and tins of ghee to rub on the deceased for better burning… I watch families of mourners carrying their loved one’s body (one every five minutes).

Night seems to enhance these ancient rituals. It also conveniently covers up the “impure” habits of these wonderful people… The idea that garbage of any kind should be left anywhere and everywhere.

So, I prefer the darkness. It highlights the stacked pyres of wood (there is actually a rule governing how much wood a family is required to buy inI order for the body to be burned down to ash). I know there is a body burning but the blackness protects my sensibility and I only see the beautiful reflection of the flames on the water along with tiny tins of flower and votive offerings – one of which was mine! This is all quite charming in water that by day is full of trash, excrement, cinder and an occasional coin or gold necklace that was wrapped in the body and a scavenger will find the next day with a magnet fishing pole.

The cremations are the focus along with a beautiful ceremony, called Aarti, held at the edge of the river on platforms holding red-robed priests blowing conch shells, ringing bells, burning incense and brass pyramids of tiny candles chanting blessings galore.

As if this is not enough to burn a lifetime of memories into our minds, the next day brings another boat ride viewing pastel buildings of the past, the ‘ghats’ (steps leading to river) where locals are washing themselves, even brushing their teeth (remember in the same water as the night before!), and washing their clothes (beating the dirt out on a stone slab). Oh, and did I mention the sacred cow or two that seem to be using the river too!

Still, one can’t help but fall in love with the color, the ritual, and the seduction of the Hindu faith in the afterlife where life always gets to a better place.


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