discovering Varanasi’s ancient traditions

We made our way from Kolkata to Varanasi on a 16 hour train journey (including Indian delays). We arrived into Varanasi’s busy train station where lots of people wanted to ‘help’ us, thankfully I had prebooked us into Ganpati’s Guesthouse so we had a friendly chap waiting for us.

The city of Varanasi is incredible, I haven’t met anyone who dislikes it. We walked the long way from the station right to the front of the Ganges where Ganpati’s sits. Despite becoming very hot whilst carrying our oversized luggage we were very happy with our room with a view.

That evening we arranged a sunset boat tour along the Ganges. We paid about 1500 rupees for a two hour boat trip (we later discovered that you can get it for 500 rupees!) Oh well. Dressed in our beautiful saris from Kolkata we rowed out to the other side of the river. The hazy sun set behind us and we gazed out at the ancient steps leading into the water. Varanasi is one of the holy Hindu centres where pilgrims make the journey to bathe in the holy waters to absolve them of their sins. It is also the favourite city of the Hindu deity Lord Shiva. We were taken to one of the burning ghats, where upon a man dressed all in white hopped across parked boats and stepped over onto ours. He introduced himself as the chief priest of the ghat and began to tell us the history behind this ancient tradition.

Burning ghatsWhen a family member dies they are taken to Varanasi for a funeral ceremony held by the holy Ganges. We were told women do not usually attend due to their emotions, as crying is not allowed because they believe it stops the soul from passing on. Our guide led us off the boat and gave us a tour around the burning pyres. We pulled our sari’s over our heads in respect as the guide pointed out to us, ‘Look see the arm!’ and then as we edged closer he shouted, ‘Look the head! Right there!’ It was definitely an experience we’d never had before…

When we got back in our boat a bag was flung just metres from us causing a splash. Our guide leant in and said, ‘That was the backbone. They take the remaining body parts and throw them into the holy water.’ We were also able to witness a son complete the ceremony where he used a large clay pot filled with water from the Ganges and pour it over the ashes. This is repeated three times and then he threw the pot over his shoulder into the ashes so the soul could be released.

He then told us that if the family cannot afford the wood (as it’s very expensive he emphasised) they are given wood donated by others. Which led to us giving him as many rupees as we possibly part with. We gave each other the look (rolling eyes) and donated 1000 rupees from our joint purse. Were we tight? Apparently because he couldn’t believe the lack of notes in his hand. He tried to guilt trip us into handing over more but we shook our heads and said that was all we had.

By this time it was dark and the daily ceremony began on the steps. We rowed up to the already crowded area and watched the dancing from the water. Bright colours against the jet black sky and candles swirled into the air, it was a magical evening and we fell more in love with this incredible country.