I am told that it is the oldest inhabited city in the modern world, believed to be overt 3000 years old. It’s main attraction for both Hindu pilgrims and tourists alike are the ghats, or steps that lead from temples to the western river banks of the Ganges River. Daily, you will find hoards of pilgrims dunking, drinking and bottling up the water from the river as it’s believed to have healing and spiritual powers.
Amidst the narrowed pathways not fitted for cars, somehow they along with motorbikes, tuk-tuks and bi-peds find their way to the holy waterway of the river. As you can imagine, the streets are teeming with congestion and small commerce ranging from fruit sellers to street food, open-aired haircuts, not to mention t-shirts and jewelry. But, once you reach the river itself, the daytime provides a calm relaxing stroll between Assi Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat – never mind the several requests by local boatsman asking you if you’d like a boat ride on the river (we were asked no less than 25 times along this 2 mile stretch). In the early morning and evening every single day, brings a ritual called Aarti, which rings in a new (day) and marks the ending of the day. This is what makes this city so unique. Witnessing these rituals brings hundreds upon hundreds of people on the Assi and Rajendraprasad Ghats – it’s a surreal event to experience firsthand.
We jumped in a boat after Aarti to head northward towards Manikarnika Ghat where an important event occurs. Hindu’s believe that the Ganges and the city are so sacred that hundreds of dead bodies are cremated here (everyday). It’s virtually non-stop 24/7; more so in the nighttime where pyres burn simultaneously throughout the night. Each cremation site is arranged in a rectangle with wood stacked about 3ft. high where the shroud covered deceased is placed (on top of the wood pile), then another foot of wood on top it. No less than 5 sites burn simultaneously and a seemingly endless queue. I covered my mouth as to not breath in the smoke directly – the thought on inhaling what’s burning in front of me just seemed wrong. I was told that it takes roughly 1000lbs of wood to burn a corpse; as evidenced, there’s piles upon piles of chopped wood stacked 10s of meters high around the ghat. After the cremation is complete, what remains (ash and some unburnt bones are tossed into the river). This is believed to complete the cycle of life.
From Aarti to the burning pyres, everything along the Ganges River is surreal and nothing like I’ve ever experienced in my travels so far. This city has been known as Barnasas, sometimes Kashi and better known around the world as Varanasi.