Varanasi, India. Yes, we have finally reached the holiest place in India. It is the city where, if you are a devout Hindu, you hope to die, or at least to be cremated on the banks of the Ganges.
We saw it at two distinct moments in the day of the river, sunrise and sunset.
In the evening, there are several huge religious ceremonies in the evening, and hundreds of people gather on the ghats and in boats on the river to watch and listen.
As you may recall from Pushkar, ghats are a series of steps leading down to a body of water such as a bathing or cremation place. Ghats often seem to be associated with a temple or certain sects, or a specific part of the country. If you squint your eyes in the evening light, they often look like club houses, and all have names. We rode through the dusk into the sunset, and then watched the evening religious ceremonies, which were almost frightening in their passion. At the end, we lit our own candles in the middle of a marigold, and set them alight to wish you all well.
What can I say? Even for India, it seemed like absolute chaos. People were praying, lighting candles, stringing flowers, getting ready to bathe, haggling over boat prices, avoiding cows and goats, doing yoga, and were generally in a serious mood appropriate to such a religious place. Every Hindu wants to go bathe in the Ganges at least once in their life.
That was more visible at dawn, when people were washing themselves and their clothes, immersed in the holy river that is thought to remit sins, especially at one of the sacred sites that includes Varanasi. The river was calmer then, but the sense of mystery and reverence is equally strong.
Of the approximately 80 ghats on the river, two we saw are dedicated to the cremation of the dead, a service handled by the lowest caste since time immemorial. Families buy a certain amount of wood, which is used to build a pyre. The body is first carried to the river and rinsed, then water is poured into the mouth. Once on the pyre, the body burns till it is reduced to ashes.
This morning they were bringing in the wood for today’s funerals.
We saw the entire process, and it was quite moving.