The guidebooks paint an unpleasant picture of Varanassi, much like Agra, warning you of all the touts and how crazy the streets will be. In reality, after Rajasthan, Varanasi was a breath of fresh(ish) air. But then our guide book is seven years old and things can change in tourism very quickly once a trail appears.
We spent a full day walking along the Ganges and seeing the sights, it is most definitely an overload to the senses. In one glance you will see bodies burning while goats eat some of the funereal offerings and someone else washes on the edge of the river among the human ash. After everything else you see the dead bodies seem so much less shocking. It is the overwhelmingness of the situation which almost makes everything fit. If you saw a funeral pyre in London along the Thames it would seem much stranger.
Getting away from the streets and onto the river’s edge everything is instantly more peaceful. We stayed in Assi Ghat and so started our walk from there. The closer we got to the old town the more touts there were trying to sell us boat rides and drugs, perhaps both at the same time.
The ghat walls were littered with interesting pieces of graffiti from around the world, whilst the Ganges was just littered. The sidewalk was covered in human excrement and the smell could reach unbearable levels. Apparently it’s ok to throw rubbish in the Ganges but not to poo in it, this was one of the things I found most confusing. I saw a mother and daughter empty a bin of rubbish into the river and then sit and pray by its side. Clothes were being washed and dried by the burning ghats which meant you will undoubtedly have some pieces of burnt human in your clothes when you next put them on.
The burning ceremonies themselves run by quite strict rules, I can’t be sure but I think it must be quite expensive to pay for a ceremony as there were crematorium chimneys by one ghat which was for the poorer people. The main burning ghat was too big and busy to see clearly what was going on. The smaller ghat further south was a much more interesting experience. We sat on a viewing balcony and ended up staying for about two hours, until a particularly harshly smoking body made us leave.
The body was mainly covered in a sheet, some with the head exposed, it was then dipped in the Ganges and set upon a frame of wood. The males from the family give spices and offerings to the body, everything has to be natural. The Son wears white and has shaved his head, except for a tiny pony tail. Women are not allowed at the ceremony because they would be liable to cry and this is a bad omen. There was also a spell of women throwing themselves in the fire and they don’t want to encourage this. The only people who are burned are standard adults; the fire cleanses them for enlightenment. Children, pregnant women, Lepers (already cleansed through suffering) and those who died of snakebites (holy snake god Shiva)do not need to be cleansed by the fire and so are tied and sunk straight into the Ganges. This process apparently results in lots of limbs washing up on the opposite shore or in flood season.
The process of burning is done very respectfully and takes about three hours before the ashes are put into the Ganges. People talk about these processes with fascination but to me honouring a dead body with such ceremony is much more understandable than squatting and pooing in public.