Varanasi. Maybe this name rings a distant bell in your brain, as it’s the reigning dual title-holder of both the Oldest City in the World and the Holiest City in the World. I have no idea by what metrics either of those are measured but that’s what I’ve been told.
Varanasi is a city in India that’s built on the River Ganga. The Ganga is one of 3 tributaries of the holy Ganges River, and the holiest of the tributaries. It’s said that the Ganga flows from Shiva himself. The city is a Hindu pilgrimage site, but not for the living. Hindus come from all over to get cremated, or have their ashes thrown in the river.
Not only do dead bodies go in the river, but live ones do too. The entire riverbank is made up of “ghats” or holy baths that are used for different purposes. Some are used to cure leprosy, and some are for bodies. And they’re all part of one giant river of water; there isn’t any form of separation between them, not that it would help. So you can see happy Indians splish-splashing around less than 100 feet from where bodies have been tossed in for thousands of years. Even the Indian government has issued health warnings telling people to stop getting in.
*****My friend & I go to pet stray puppies, Indian guy & his clique who are attempting to get selfies with us look at us like we’re nuts*****
Us: You won’t pet the puppies?
Homeboy: (Hindi accent)Not sanitary!
Us: So do you get in the water?
Homeboy: Of course. Why not?
Pour one out for the lack of education on communicative diseases.
I heard tales of 3 other foreigners who actually got in the water. Two got Typhoid and one got Hepatitis E. I didn’t even know Hepatitis had spread that far down the alphabet.
Note – submerging in the Ganga is supposed to cleanse you of all your karma. But this can be done very far upstream at a much cleaner part of the Ganga in Rishikesh.
Fun (Morbid) Facts About the Craziest City in Existence
1) Not only do people come here to have their remains disposed of in the river, but also to die
Mother Theresa’s is a Catholic charity in Varanasi (with branches in other cities) where people come to die with dignity. That means anyone too poor to afford hospital service or to get buried who doesn’t want to die in the street. They also take care of cremations, however with ovens, not wood. You can volunteer here and help people in their final hours. I met one guy who did it, and he said after 1 day he had seen enough death and mentally needed a break.
2) Majority of the Babas/Sadus(holymen) tourists see here are FAKE
This one isn’t really a surprise. Especially closer to the ghats there are sadus, or holy men, dressed in orange or covered in ash waiting for tourists to come and take their picture. And then after people take their picture, they ask for money.
I found this particularly depressing because so many street photographers I follow have amazing pictures from Varanasi. It’s sad to find out they’ve had to pay for taking them. I was told that a baba who asks you for money isn’t a real baba, as supposedly they’ve given up material things and such. Therefore, there’s a lot of cool pictures of fake babas rolling around. I only found 2 babas that didn’t want money for their picture the entire time I was in Varanasi. It was like finding out there’s no Santa Clause all over again.
3) The fire that lights the main burning ghat has supposedly been burning for thousands of years
There’s some Hindu legend behind this, I forget.
4) The caste system is alive and well in Varanasi, and is reflected in the cremations
The main burning ghat is divided into 4 parts, one for each caste.
The only people who are allowed to actually burn bodies are Doms, a special sub-caste of untouchables
These men are all driven to alcoholism to cope with the smell of burning bodies. People won’t let them into their homes or even look at them, but they’ll pay them to burn their relatives.
5) It takes 150 kilos of wood for 1 cremation
That’s around 300 pounds-ish. The business of death is on & poppin in Varanasi. If people can’t afford all the wood for a cremation, they’ll burn the body until they run out and then throw the remains in the water. Which brings me to my next fact…
6) Dogs and other animals are known to be especially mangy here because they chew on pieces of bodies that wash up on the shores of the River Ganga
7) There are real-live cannibals that hang out here & no one bats an eye
No, you’re not in danger of getting eaten. But there is a group of holy men in the Hindu religion that are known for being cannibals. However, they don’t just eat anyone; they only eat bodies that are donated to them by families of the deceased. They usually can be seen around dusk, because that is the time of day that the world of the living and the dead are most in balance, or something like that. They’re recognizable by the ash on their face and their all-black getups. The weird part – they’re highly respected, which is probably why people let the cannibalism get by.
8) This is where you will see the most weddings in India
Maybe because it’s a holy city? I don’t know. But I saw more newlyweds within my first half hour of getting to Varanasi than I did in all of my time in Asia combined. An Indian dude who worked at my hostel in Jodhpur told me that I had my best chance of crashing a wedding in Varanasi, so I’m not making this up either. (I actually ended up crashing a wedding in Pushkar, but more on that another day)
9) There’s a lassi shop where you can watch bodies go by on their way to the pyre
Lassi(n). – dank Indian yogurt drink thing with a layer of milk froth on top that’s heaven in a terracotta cup. Instead of plastic cups they’re traditionally served in terracotta cups, which you just toss away when you’re finished. Much more eco-friendly than plastic.
The shop is called Blue Lassi. It’s one of the number one tourist shops in the city, thank you Lonely Planet. You pay double to triple what you’d pay at other lassi shops, which is still less than $2, so it’s worth it. Plus the lassis are really good and the owner is nice.
Bodies go by carried on stretchers on their way to the main burning ghat (Manakarnika Ghat). They’re covered in orange fabric, but it’s tied so you can still tell where the head & limbs are. It’s pretty creepy, the bodies jiggle when they’re rushed down the alleyways. If you’re walking in an alley and hear bells GTFO to the side, that means a body is coming through.
Interesting article on the burning ghats, complete with pictures.
Here’s a siq music video that was filmed in Varanasi along with other cities in the Rajasthani region where you can see footage of a body going by at 3:45. You can see the actual main burning ghat at 3:56.
10) There’s more public cow sh*t per capita than there is public trash cans
Hahahahahaaaaaaa I mean at least I think I’m funny. Not proven but probably true. One night I was walking through the winding alleyways when the lights went out (a normal occurrence in India). I wasn’t concerned about getting pickpocketed, I was concerned about stepping in cow crap.
There ya have it. Scam artists, the caste system, and thousands of dead people. Have I sold you on it yet?
SIDE NOTE sick music vid some French guy shot on his iPhone in India. The beginning and the end are in Varanasi.