Megan Abbott

Varanasi: India's Holiest City

Megan Abbott
Varanasi: India's Holiest City

Originally published in SUITCASE Magazine, 2015

It is easy to forget, as you pick your way through the crackling embers and smoggy ash of Varanasi’s cremation site, that the whole thing is one big celebration. At first glance from our boat, moored up on the Ganges in the fading golden hour sun, the heaps of burning wood scorching the air seem morbid, if not terrifying. In Varanasi, the city at the heart of Hinduism, death is everywhere. From the piles of flaming tinder narrowly concealing the corpses that burn beneath to the uncountable human remains sunk at the bottom of the Ganges, mortality moves through the air as densely as the incense that plumes from the temples, or the heat of the September sun. 

To visit this sacred city is to confront a reality that is so often pushed firmly to the back of the mind in favour of more palatable thoughts. Yet here, there is none of the bleak misery that goes hand in hand with bereavement in our part of the globe. Instead, a family’s mourning unites with a joyous celebration that their loved one is off to a better place. In the Hindu religion, to be cremated on Varanasi’s Manikarnika or Harishchandra Ghat is a rite of passage; a one-way ticket to Nirvana without all the reincarnation business the rest of us must tussle through. Night and day, the flames of the cremation sites lick the sky from their place on the Ganges, open for all eyes to see. Sitting in a cracked lilac boat on the grey waters, we learned from our friend Ballah that when a father dies, his sons must shave their heads in respect. As you wander the bustling and sunny Ghats, this ritual is easily spotted. Portly hairdressers hack away hair with rusty shaving knives, and freshly bald men cut a striking figure, appearing like monks in white robes with shiny, hairless skulls. 

It is a privilege, Ballah tells us, to burn away in Varanasi. Only around 25,000 bodies are cremated on the Ghats. Perhaps that explains the strange air that fills the place, one of tranquil celebration. ‘It is beauty’ says Ballah, ‘we come into this world alone, we die alone. We worry, we work, we cry, and this is how we end; ash.’ I ask him if it scares him, to think of his own self vanishing into smog on the banks of the city he grew up in. ‘Scared? No! It is joyful, it is all I want.’ Try as we did to get as jaunty as he in the face of all this brazen death, we came to accept that this mind-set, so unique to Hindus, was at once admirable and completely alien to us. A visitor can simply be an observer of it, caught in the intoxicating bubble of Varanasi. It is a city that pulls you in and forces you to stare death straight in the eye. Yet it is also a place of such life. Boats of pastel pink, green and blue bob on the waters, cows and goats painted orange stroll the banks of the river, and music calls out from every corner of the city at all times. The Sadhus (‘holy men’) decorate the steps with their painted faces, long beards and garlands of flowers, penetrating their gaze into you. The Ganges itself is often referred to as ‘Mother, Brother, Father, Son, Lover’, and as people dive in, splash, sing and spin in its murky water, it is clear how much joy it brings to the city and to those Hindus who have trailed here just to touch it. 

Varanasi is not an easy place to visit. Stiflingly hot in the summer months, it can at times resemble a pressure cooker in which death, noise, religion, crowds and smoke are all ready to come bursting out in one long, defeating blare. Any place where your average day combines a morning yoga class and a wander around the market with a cremation sighting and a thousand-strong crowd chanting prayers to a snake god could not be called average. Yet like so much of India, once you let Varanasi wash over you in all its staggering glory, you can find yourself utterly seduced by it. It is a place where tradition hums and history is touchable. Each day ends with ‘Angi Pooja’, the worship to fire. Watching from our boat what felt like the entire city sing along with five priests in praise of Lord Shiva (‘Great God’), all of the festivity of India could be felt at once. Varanasi encompasses the country’s propensity to meld the sullen with the celebratory. Death and festivity are joined in this holy city. Candles burn, street food steam fuses with incense smoke, life melts away into the sky, and everyone is damn happy to be there. …appears blissfully happy to be there?

Cremation:

Photography is strictly prohibited at the cremation sites, but this photograph sums up their heady atmosphere. Indian women are not permitted to attend the burnings. The ceremony should be a calm and ‘one with no tears’, Ballah told us, and women have been ‘responsible’ in the past for bringing distress to the ceremony. This was shocking but, sadly, not particularly surprising to hear in this still male-dominated country. What was more startling was being asked to walk through the burning bodies by their family ‘for luck’. This was down to being Western, a status still revered by many locals. We politely sidestepped this request and pretended to be Dutch…

The Ganges:

Day and night, the Ganges ripples with bodies washing themselves in its sacred waters. Hindus demonstrate their adoration for ‘Ganga’ by cupping and emptying the water in their hands, connecting themselves to this most sacred lifeline. In many villages we visited, the local stream or lake was named ‘local Ganga’, but nothing beats a visit to the river itself for Hindus. Its waters are believed to wash the sins from the body, and up and down the banks you can see pots of the stuff being lifted from the river and carried home to perform domestic rituals. Despite so much commotion around the banks of the water, the ritual of swimming is one of sacred tranquillity. Moments of calm such as this are to be seen day and night as Hindus undress and immerse themselves in the beloved ‘Ganga Jal’ (water of the Ganges). 

Sleeping Man:

One of the most astonishing things about Varanasi is the way that death, cremation and religious ritual combine so harmoniously with a tangible sense of calm. All around India, people are sleeping. Whether it’s in the middle of a bustling market or right next door to a funeral, a nap is always on the cards. This man was no exception, snoozing in the midday sun on his pastel-hued porch. 

Hair Cutting:

This boy’s father had just died, and in the Hindu tradition he was having his head shaved in respect. This ritual is called ‘Tonsure’ and can be seen up and down the Ghats of Varanasi as men prepare to pay their respects at their loved one’s cremation. Hair is only shaved when an elder family member passes away, a symbol of the sacrifice of beauty in respect to the deceased. We were struck by the peace on this young man’s face, it really summed up the gracious acceptance of Hindu’s in Varanasi that the dead have passed on to a better place. 

The Red Turban Man:

We were often told that we were lucky to visit India at a time when traditional dress can still be seen, that the customary dhotis, lungis and turbans are quickly falling away in favour of more Western styles. Varanasi can feel like a time capsule when men like this one, wound up in this stunning turban, which is a symbol of strength and command. Unwound turbans can be seen drying on the Ghats, or being dyed with dazzling natural colouring. 

Agni Puja:

The Worship to Fire takes place each night on the Dashashwamedha Ghat, the main Ghat of Varanasi. Five priests mount the riverbank to chant, pray and send flames and clouds of incense dancing across the night sky. We went back night after night to witness this intoxicating sight, swallowed by the crowds as they danced and sang up to the gods. On our first night, we watched the festival from the water, knocking into the endless other boats that drifted next to us. A chai wallah (tea seller) hopped from boat to boat filling our cups with steaming, sweet masala chai. Fire is the chosen element in Hindu cremations, linked with purity and its ability to repel demons. 

The Orange Man:

As an outsider to India, it is normal to be stared at. Locals will often stare at you as you eat, drink, sightsee and, as is so often the case in this dazzling country, stare right back at them. This uninhibited gazing is something you get used to pretty quickly, and though it can be disconcerting at first, it often leads to times such as this; when strangers from entirely different worlds meet in one deep and unflinching moment of mutual contemplation. 

Ballah:

This was Ballah, our unwavering friend and tour guide who walked, drove and rowed us through his city. Ballah came from a poor family and shared a moped with a group of friends. He took us at dusk to his boat where we drifted from one end of the city to the other, observing the rituals of the Ganges at this magnificent time of day otherwise known as ‘cow hour’ (we never quite found out why…). He rowed us up to the steps to buy two small wax candles in newspaper, surrounded by rose petals. He told us to light the wick and make a wish for our families before placing them on the river to float off with the hundreds more that lit up the darkening water like fireflies.