Varanasi: The city of the living dead and nirvana

Published: December 5, 2017
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I decided to pick one area in India that was particularly memorable – and Varanasi is a city that truly gives new meaning to the term “memorable”. PHOTO: LESLEY LUI

“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” – Mark Twain

I’d say that Twain was quite accurate in his description of this eerie city, founded 5,000 years ago by the Hindu deity, Lord Shiva. That is, if you believe in legends. Modern historians more accurately date Varanasi, also known as Benares, to around 3,000 years old, which still makes it one of the oldest cities in the world.

I’d love to write a blog post about my entire experience in India, but as I’d like to keep this relatively short (we will see about that), I decided to pick one area in India that was particularly memorable – and Varanasi is a city that truly gives new meaning to the term “memorable”.

India is plagued with homelessness, or at least, what westerners would consider “homeless”. No matter where you go, the streets are teeming with ramshackle houses constructed out of a variety of materials, such as concrete, scrap metal, cardboard, mud, plastic tarp and garbage bags. The occupants of these structures don’t own the land they live on, but rather, their collective mass as squatters enables them to build large communities that would prove difficult for the government to evict or relocate them.

Even in the more opulent areas of Bombay (modern day Mumbai), multi-million dollar houses and condos are situated right next to these slum communities. Varanasi is no exception to this rule. Having been in India for almost two weeks, I thought the initial culture shock of everything that was ‘India’ had worn off. Varanasi took India, as I had experienced it so far, to a whole new level.

Although known as the City of Light, Varanasi is not for the faint of heart. Its cherished spiritual rituals of life and death are put on display in very public arenas, and can be quite overwhelming, even for the well-travelled westerner.

Before I get into my first impressions of this magical city, let me provide some historical colour to the significance of Varanasi, in relation to Hindu culture and India as a whole.

Religiously, Varanasi is considered to be one of the holiest cities in India. Hindu pilgrims from all over India and beyond make it their life’s ambition to trek to the Ganges river to cleanse their sins, collect its sacred waters to bring home for relatives (used to cure an assortment of physical and spiritual ailments), and more significantly, to die.

It is believed that those who die here reach nirvana (what is considered heaven in Buddhism) and achieve moksha – the liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. After all, despite the sacredness of cows, who really wants to come back as cattle?

Given this role that Varanasi plays in the Hindu psyche, “homelessness” is omnipresent here. In fact, I’m pretty sure that there are more people living on the streets than there are living in actual houses or apartments. Not only are the streets bursting with makeshift shelters, most people on the streets are either dying, close to dying, or have some sort of deformity, self-inflicted or otherwise. Not a surprise, as people literally come here to die and cure themselves of disease. It is the city of the living dead. Undoubtedly, this is a hard sight to stomach.

The city runs on disorganised chaos. It’s like there are no rules and everyone just does what they please, yet oddly, the madness seems to work. Faeces, literal faeces, cover nearly every inch of the streets – droppings from goats, cows, dogs, and children running amuck. Cows are sacred so this is their stomping ground. Often you’ll see cows just sitting in the middle of a store, taking reprieve in the shade, and the store owners just moving around their business as if there wasn’t a giant cow in the middle of their store.

The day starts at 6am in Varanasi; a smoky haze lifting off the Ganges river as Hindu monks glide down the river ghat (a series of steps leading down to the river), chanting an eerie Sanskrit prayer. These few minutes during dawn are a reprise from the chaotic beat of the city. Only dedicated monks offering their morning prayers, and a few eager tourists with eyes still caked in sleep, shuffle towards the river ghat to observe the morning procession. As the haze begins to lift, city inhabitants descend upon the river to bathe and relieve themselves.

Though considered sacred, the river is by no means sanitary. Tourists are not encouraged to even dip their toes in the river, for fear of catching some ungodly parasite. Excrement is the least of your worries in this river. As the river is also the final resting places for close to 40,000 bodies each year, nearly half of them only partially burned, it is not unusual to see partially decomposed limbs floating past.

From what I remember, there are two official ghats where the ritual of cremating takes place. Photography is forbidden at these ghats, but you can often see them in the background from other photos of the river.

When I was there, the government had recently installed an incinerator at one of the ghats in hopes of reducing the amount of bodies being burned the traditional way. On any given day, approximately 200 bodies are burned at each ghat. When bodies are burned using sandalwood, the burn lasts about three hours. However, three hours is not sufficient time for the entire body to be reduced to ashes. For men, the chest portion of the body often remains partially intact, and for women, the hips. These partially-burned remains are then tossed into the river for the fish to consume – another religious rite that aids the soul’s journey to nirvana.

At the time I was there, the incinerators were proving to be less than popular as it is believed that the process of the funeral rite is essential to achieving nirvana. Some believe that using a modern incinerator confuses the soul and causes it to wander restlessly for eternity. As such, the industry of death in Varanasi is “thriving”, to say the least.

However, death is not the only industry in Varanasi. This  mecca of death is also a major producer of fine silk, and as most inhabitants of the city are opportunists, we easily found ourselves an English-speaking guide eager to show us the splendour of the Varanasi silk trade. Silks in Varanasi are hand-woven and intricately designed. Every colour imaginable and then some, line the shelves of hundreds of silk shops.

Silk shopping is quite an experience in Varanasi. I’d equate it to shopping for a fascinator (fancy British hats) in London. The moment you enter a shop, be prepared to spend at least two to three hours draped in every silk the shop has in stock, as well as a few from their store down the street. There is no such thing as popping in for a quick browse – no, this is serious business. From the moment you set foot into the shop, you are quickly ushered in (before you can change your mind), shoes taken off (the floor of the shop is a giant mattress – not kidding), offered chai (accept, but don’t drink, unless you fancy a bout of explosive diarrhoea), and seated on giant cushions on top of the mattress floor.

You will then be showcased every single item the store has for sale. You can say “I’m interested in silk scarves” and they will show you about 1,000 silk scarves, all different qualities, colours, designs,  and weaves, and then some silk bed sheets, curtains and table cloths, just in case you want to buy those as well. The prices are quite amazing, even the inflated foreigner prices, which are inflated by about 50% as they expect you to negotiate.

The key to getting the best possible price is to buy multiple items. So if you plan on bringing home some silk scarves as souvenirs, you’d get a better deal from just buying from one store.

Now, unless you are staying at an Ashram, chanting and yoga-ing your day away, or studying Sanskrit at one of the city’s many schools, there isn’t a whole lot else to do in Varanasi. Eventually, the chaos starts to wear and you start to dread even little things like hailing a tuk tuk to drive you out for dinner, because it takes about 20 minutes to negotiate with the tuk tuk driver on the price. Although looking back, I’m not sure why I bothered negotiating over a dollar. I guess it’s a mentality you get into that you have to negotiate for everything – clearly he needed the dollar more than I did.

As the red sun sets on the holy river, the last must-do experience in Varanasi is to hire a little row boat to take you out during the sunset to watch the evening parade of floats, made of religious shrines, gliding their way down the river. You can light a candle on a lily pad and set it afloat on the river. It’s quite a sight – a river full of floating lily pads with candles on them. Not a bad way to end your day.

I wouldn’t say this was my favourite place in India (another blog about that at another time), but I would say it was one of the most memorable and unique places that I have ever been to. So if you are planning a trip to India and would like to see something other than a million different magnificent and bejewelled palaces, I’d encourage you to be adventurous and explore the dark, twisty, windy streets of Varanasi and experience one of the holiest places on earth for yourself.

All photos: Lesley Lui

This post originally appeared here.

Lesley Lui

Lesley Lui

The author is a professional lifestyle and travel photographer, originally from Toronto, but now living mainly in Central America. Her blogs are based on personal experiences she’s had from her travels around the world. Sh tweets at @sandinmylens (twitter.com/sandinmylens)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • kp

    indeed a journey to oldest city of the planet must be fascinating and unforgettable too. hope one day i will visit this great placeRecommend

  • Raj Rao

    Oldest living city on the planet, with more than 3,000 year history in it’s bylanes …Recommend

  • Patwari

    Wow! What a great blog! So informative. Been to Hindustan but
    mostly confined to Bombay and Delhi areas.
    Love Nainital, Kalagarh, Reserve, Corbett National Park, [been there
    many many times.] Great areas to visit.
    These hill areas are enchanting. They capture you.
    If you take the politics out of Bharat and the current dark cloud of Hindutva
    furiously fanned by the Vermilion Lord Modi Himself,..India is a great place
    to visit.
    Take note gp65.Recommend

  • Lalit

    North Indian food is not suitable for a North American palate….Recommend

  • Khalid Khan

    That’s a great narration and a well calculated story telling……………..places in India are worth seeing in the light of history and culture.Recommend

  • Desi

    Yes India is dirty and that is a fact.Recommend

  • Arunanshu M

    Where are the pics of the world famous Ganga Aarti at the banks, the dance of the flaming lights and the mesmerising sight of thousands of camphor lamps floating down the river every evening, creating an out of the world spectacle? Where are the pics of the super large ubiquitous umbrellas of Panditjis dotting the kashi ghats? Where are the marijuana smoking naked Naga Sanyasis perpetually high on Shiva, the legendary Baijis and Begum sahibas of Banarasi kothis? Where are the Kashi gullies and bylanes that are so captivatingly narrow and of course the Kashi bulls who royally block those walkways in all their crowning glory? Recommend

  • Arunanshu M

    Next time, take the route from Delhi to Haridwar or Rishikesh. Either travel north up the river to Uttarkashi or beyond, or take a launch/ boat and float down south to Benaras and Prayag and maybe down to Kolkata by waterways if you have multi city permits. Few travels in the world are comparable to this journey if sought through the eyes of a seeker.Recommend

  • Parvez

    I wasn’t expecting that …… wonderful, realistic write up. For one who has not visited the city, it gave me a sharp picture of the place without any added frills.
    Look forward to your write up on other Indian cities because I feel there is a lot of material both positive and negative in the land of 1.3 billion people.Recommend

  • abhi

    Interesting to see a foreigner’s account of Varanasi.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Thanks for the heads up. Will definitely consider that.
    Have started the research, prefer Fall/Winter, trans. hotels etc.
    Float down all the way to Calcutta ! Did not even know it.
    Like the Hill Stations and National Parks, Nature preserves.
    [Advisories are to avoid sensitive areas/cities like Kashmir/Srinagar.
    Places more or less under joint military administration or control.
    Will not think of visiting such regions anyway. Unfortunately, they are
    too dangerous. For anyone.]
    Again, thanks so much.Recommend

  • Sane

    But, lanes and road give a stinking smell.Recommend