There is much that I will never understand about Varanasi, one of the oldest living cities in the world with a spiritual legacy of thousands of years. The faith and fervour that draws Hindus from around the world to the banks of the River Ganges is not something I share and yet witnessing the level of spirituality in Varanasi is something that moved me. I feel the effects of visiting Varanasi long after I’ve left it.
For those that are not familiar with the religious significance of Varanasi I shall try and explain it but please do forgive my simplicity as I obviously do not know the ins and outs of the Hindu religion.
As it was explained to us, the River Ganges is the holiest of rivers in India and its goddess, Mother Ganga, has the power to purify sins and end the cycle of death and rebirth, a concept known as moksha. In the Hindu culture, achieving moksha from Mother Ganga means you avoid returning to Earth as a cow or cricket in your next life.
As Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest cities (thought to have been inhabited for 5,000 years) it is believed to be the most scared of places on the River Ganges and hence is an incredibly special place for Hindu devotees, in life and death. People come from all around the world to bathe in the holy water and cleanse their sins and many more request to be cremated here, their ashes given to the river so their souls may be transported to heaven.
As we took a sunset cruise down the River Ganges the importance of the river in life and death became obvious. We passed men bathing, ladies doing laundry, cows having a drink from the water’s edge and then, through the smoke, saw the flames of funeral pyres, mourners in white standing around them.
Cremations take place in the open on two funeral ghats in Varanasi. There are fixed pyres you pay to cremate your loved ones at and due to their popularity cremations take place around the clock 7 days a week, the next shrouded body often lined up on the steps waiting for their turn on the fire.
We passed one of the funeral ghats from a distance but we weren’t the only tourist boat on the river that night and not all of them seemed to respect that this was a funeral ceremony. It was uncomfortable to watch how close some of the boats got to the mourners – it seems our fascination, as outsiders, with the concept of public cremations has overridden any comprehension of what is normal, respectful behaviour in these circumstances.
From a discreet distance, I took some photos for inclusion in this article (and please correct me if you think this is wrong) and then, like the rest of our group, I lowered the lens, put down my phone and tried to think about how I would want others to act if it was my loved one being cremated on the riverbank.
Without stopping, the boat continued to the main purpose of our cruise, participation in the evening aarti held on the riverfront at Dashashwamedh Ghat. Every evening the River Ganges is worshipped and thanked in a ceremony involving Sanskrit chants, the clash of cymbals, the heady scent of sandalwood and flames held high by young priests in saffron robes. People gather in boats and on the Ghat to watch the Ganga Aarti ritual and partake with candlelit offerings that are placed in flowers and given to the river.
Tourists, pilgrims and holy men meet at the aarti that is understood by few but felt by many. Our boat seemed to bob on the water to the rhythm of the hymns, candles floated downstream like fairies, and all around us I could see heads lowered in prayer and contemplation.
It was the largest display of faith I’ve ever witnessed and it was impossible not to be affected by it. You don’t have to know much about faith to feel it in Varanasi.
I visited Varanasi as a guest of the Maharajas’ Express and Incredible India. All opinions are my own.