Thursday, October 31, 2013

Varanasi: The City of Life and Death

 Sunrise over the Ganges

Varanasi”, reads the header on page 383 of Lonely Planet’s India guidebook, “Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners.” Ain’t that the truth.

I just want to pause here and say that this post may very well be disturbing to many of you. If you would rather not read about death talked about in a very raw way, please stop now. Sorry. Catchya on the next one. 

Morning offerings

Oddly enough, I have caught myself talking about Varanasi over the past several years, since my first visit here, the same way I talk about Burning Man, I have said things like, “there is just no place on earth like it”, “there is no reason to try to describe it because you just can’t”, and my favorite of all, “you wont believe human beings made this place and that they do these things”. These are all of the ways I have found myself describing both Varanasi as well as Black Rock City to people who have not experienced them. I am realizing now that there is another way, in which Varanasi is Reminiscent of Burning Man, or shall I say Burning Man is reminiscent of Varanasi, seeing as Varanasi has been here as an active city since 1200BC, as it is the number one on the list of the seven holy sights for Hindus, Varanasi gets the amount of visitors every four days, that Burning Man sees but once a year for a week. Anyway, back to my point, the other outstanding comparison of the two is their incredible fortitude towards death, and the prayers that are made around the journey of passing over. Okay, honestly, I admit that Burning Man has got nothing on Varanasi, but the celebrations that happen in and around the temple in Black Rock City carry, fundamentally, the same idea. And for American Culture at large, I actually think Burning Man is one of the safest and barest places to mourn, grieve and celebrate death and life. I, for one, must admit that death any dying is an incredibly intriguing concept for me, and any place that celebrates it, is a place I want to go, and a place I want to study. 

 Small prayer bundles left by the water

Sunrise on the Ghats

Varanasi is commonly referred to as, "the city of temples", "the holy city of India", "the religious capital of India", "the city of lights", and "the oldest living city on earth”, but to me, it is clearly and simply, “the city of death”. 

Varanasi is considered the holiest place for a Hindu to die or be cremated, it is said that if you die here, you will be afforded salvation or Moksha from the cyclic process of death and rebirth known as samsara. This, as you can imagine, for a Hindu who believes we may live immeasurable lifetimes, is a huge deal. Much of the rituals that surround Varanasi’s enchantment are in direct relationship to the Ganges, or the Mother River. She is the source of life and therefore, she is also the vehicle of ascent from earth, and so, death. If you die in Varanasi, you are afforded the great honor to be cremated here, on the banks of the great mother river, and you are instantly granted salvation, that is, if you can afford it. Moreover, if you die elsewhere, you’ve still got a shot at salvation, if your family has the money to ship your body and pay for cremation, or if someone carries your ashes on pilgrimage to the banks of Varanasi and performs the appropriate rituals in the great waters of this river. I have no photos of the cremation grounds on the riverbanks, because you are not supposed to take photos at these sites. Though, admittedly, I did spend an hour or more today watching these bodies being ceremoniously burned - and may I say - that is another blog post all together. On with it…

The waters of Varanasi are considered so holy that pilgrims also carry it back with them all over India to offer it to their dying loved ones who cannot make the trip. Okay, so I can literally go on and on about how sacred this river is, and tell you about all of the stories concerning the gods and how they danced here and cried here, and on and on forever about all of the rituals that are performed here, but basically, I'll just say, its sacred enough that 25,000 pilgrims come here a day to perform ceremony and honor the deceased. The truth of it is, there are literally people hiding in alleyways, under bridges and in abandoned buildings just waiting to die here, and many others who come here to, basically, commit suicide because they cannot afford to live and are essentially sick of starving and struggling and are ready for salvation.  Lets remember here that almost 40% of India’s 1.3 billion residents live below the national poverty level of less then one US dollar a day, that is something like 500 million people, starving, suffering and working very, very hard to live a very, very difficult life, many of which believe that Varanasi is there way out. I suppose that my father drove this point home to me when he lovingly warned me after reading my last blog post, “remember that you are a person for whom life is precious in a place that doesn’t always hold it that way." Well said dad. Anyhow, for those who can afford it, there are bodies shipped to Varanasi daily, and some of the main cremation grounds can burn up to 200 bodies a day. The problem is, that in a city where only 22% of its inhabitants are employed, only the rich can afford this expensive luxury. All of this to say, it is, essentially, a river of floating bodies. 

Though many of the bodies that are disposed of here on the holy banks of this river are formerly cremated, an alarming number of them are whole bodies, slipped into the river either by a government official who is appointed to do so, or more likely, by a relative or resident in the dark hours of the night. Side note: in Varanasi when you are cremated, you are only burned until your head caves in and your back breaks and then you are disposed of into the river (by the way, I learned this today as I watched). These partially cremated bodies sink faster, of course, but the bodies that are left un cremated, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, end up washed up on shore and being eaten by dogs and vultures. This is the everyday of Varanasi. I have seen the corpses of babies, of children and of adults. Some wrapped in plastic, some in cloth and others, completely exposed, some already bloated and some already half eaten.

Now here is the crazy part, as if that wasn’t it. Because the waters are believed to be so sacred, Hindus come here, like I said, by the thousands every day to swim, wash in and drink this water. After all it is the holiest of holy and is said to not only wash away all of your sins, but to cure things from leprosy (there is a whole section of the river where lepers live and wash daily, believing this water will heal them), to the common cold. The Ganges River is so heavily polluted at Varanasi that the water is actually considered septic - no dissolved oxygen exists. Samples from the river show that the water has 1.5 million fecal coliform bacteria per 100ml of water. In water that is safe for bathing - this figure should be less than 500. 

 This young boy and his father came with their parrot to bath in the sacred waters. The boy did tell me his parrot's name, but of course, I couldn't spell it even if I could remember it. He happily splashed bits of water onto his little parrot to bless it, and the parrot would just do the little bird dance and shake it off and sway back and forth.

Pilgrims doing sunrise water pujas.  

Admittedly, I am fascinated by this city. There is no other place in the world that will bring you so close to death, yet is so beautiful. So, I have seen the bodies, but what I hadn’t seen was the direct interaction between the pilgrims or should I call them the swimmers and drinkers of this water, and the bodies, until, that is, yesterday afternoon. As I sat outside of my guesthouse high above the Ghats, just watching – taking it all in, you know, just being in India – it happened.  I saw the corpse approaching for a while before the bathers on the lower part of the banks did. It was a young child, or perhaps a very small person, hard to say. On the banks there where; three young men swimming, laughing and splashing each other; women washing the days daily allotment of clothes and saris; Sadus (Indian holy men - also washing their robes, as well as filling up on their daily dose of liquids - these men are homeless, they live only on what is provided to them); and a large assortment of other people going about whatever else they were doing down there. As the corpse washed up, or floated nearby, the people would suddenly freeze and stare, and in some cases, though seldom, move away. For whatever reason, this came as a surprise to me. I’m not sure what I thought people would do, or if I didn’t think about it, or what, but I was somehow shocked to see the interaction between these people who seemingly lived in a fucking alternative world drinking this water and all be effected by what was so obviously, to me at least, the reality of the situation. It was as if I had imagined that the two realities existed completely separate of each other, which, of course, they do not.

So, eventually, a man approached the body with a long stick and I watched him follow it down stream, poking it and prodding it, helping it to find its way back into the swift current. The corpse, however, wouldn’t, it kept getting stuck in little eddies and in between boats and even on shore. As he followed it downstream with the stick, everyone in the water would get out, let it pass, then watch for a while, and get right back in. It was, for lack of a better phrase, fucking insane. Eventually, the small corpse did get out to the current and from my high up perch, I watched the little body until it turned into a speck and eventually disappeared out of site into the smoke and haze and grandeur of the huge, rushing river in front of me.  The people on the river were back to their activities long before that body disappeared from sight.

And so, here I am in India, observing with all of its rawness, life and death where it meets.

This Sadu is sitting almost exactly where I was as I watched this bewildering event. 

If you are interested in another bloggers perception of Varanasi and it's close relationship with death, check out this man's story (warning, its much more gruesome then mine):


  1. I don't know what to say, but I want to say something...
    Mostly I want to hold you and hug you but that is only from my side, you probably don't need it - I just do.
    Your photos are astounding. And in such contrast of vividness to stark reality of the words, which are beautiful also, in their way.
    I am in deep appreciation of you writing to all of us. It helps me be there, again, with you. Recognizing the exact spot you are standing in, seeing the life of the ghats, the river, continue, as if for always.
    I love you!

  2. Love reading about your transformadventure. Your voice is strong and the images you paint are detailed and rich. Never been to India, but now i feel like i get to be a fly on the wall, wearing dawn-shaded glasses. Breathe in what the great mother has to offer. You got this, girl. Thank you so much for sharing it. Big Love.