On death in the spiritual capital of India: Varanasi

A trip to India isn’t complete without visiting its spiritual capital, Varanasi. It is the oldest living city in the world and is crafted around the Ganges – where 5 rivers meet and considered to be one of the holiest places in the world. It goes by a number of names, the other it is most recognised as is Benares. The old city is comprised of an intricate web of narrow alleys, punctuated by a number of large scary cows with landmine dung piles never far away. Known for its silk, the intricacy of the designs, quality of weaving and the gorgeous natural dyes are superb – I couldn’t help but buy a sari.

For Hindus, the Ganges (or Ganga to locals) is the best place to die. Hinduism is built upon the notion of rebirth or samsara, where your place in the next life is determined by the karmic actions of this life, with the ultimate goal being to break the cycle to reach the enlightened state of moksha – the closest equivalents in other religions would be nirvana and heaven. When a Hindu passes away they are cremated 24 hours later, and their ashes are to be put into a river, and preferably a fast moving one. As the Ganges is the holiest river (and an incredibly large one at that), it is said that putting one’s ashes in there is the best chance the recently deceased will have of breaking the cycle of samsara.

The Ganga is therefore a very popular destination for Hindus nearing death, though not exclusively. It is a beautifully spiritual place visited by many pilgrims of any age or health, where Hindus come to cleanse themselves of their sins, receive blessings from Brahmins (the highest caste who give spiritual guidance), make offerings for themselves and loved ones of marigold and rose petals, and pay homage to their ancestors. The ghats along the riverbank are filled from dawn with ritualistic pilgrims. At around 7pm the Brahmin perform ceremonies which are attended by swarms of pilgrims, involving candles, spiral conches, and flower petals. As an observer, watching the whole process is an unmissable and cathartic experience, and if you make it to Varanasi, spend as much time as you can around the river. Unfortunately the river was too high for us to take a boat, though it definitely remains on my bucketlist for next time.

There is a focus on death in Varanasi, but not in a way that is jarring. It is, instead, fascinating. The world’s busiest crematorium sits on the riverbank, and runs 24 hours, seven days a week, with a minimum of two bodies burning at any one time and up to eight at a time. To get to this burning ghat you have to walk through the network of alleyways. So ingrained in the city is the approach to death that as we were sitting in a cafe called Blue Lassi (I had a mango and pomegranate lassi, and I can assure you it’s the best drink I’ve ever tasted), a dead body carried on a stretcher with 6 men carrying it, adorned in ritual blessings passed us. How’s that for cafe people watching?

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