On our first morning in Varanasi, we made our way through the streets and down to the Ghats that define this ancient city. Our interest in the ghats (a series of steps leading down to a body of water) was the primary reason we had traveled to the city. We saw laundry hanging to dry, cows taking a nap, and shops coming to life as the city started it’s day.
Walking down the steps of the first ghat we came upon felt special and adventurous, especially since the children watching us stopped to stare. A herd of water buffalo and their two brave guides rolled out of the Ganges. One slipped on the stone steps as he rushed his way to the front of the pack and bawled the rest of the way out of surprise from falling. We passed through long rows of laundry, hanging from lines or drying on the steps in the sun, which had been washed in the holy, yet terribly polluted, river.
As the day pushed on, I grew thirsty, so we climbed up the ghats and back into the city in pursuit of something to drink. One ‘Thumbs Up’ soda and an Aquafina water (for less than $1 total) and we were ready to brave the traffic of the market place in pursuit of the city’s most legendary ghats; those where the cremation of bodies occur. Instead, we ended up sitting on the stones steps with my travel bud getting a massage from a man dressed only in a thin cloth tied loosely around his waist. I giggled and took photos before I realized that a group of Indian men were taking photos of me. Blushing, I moved to sit next to Sam who was still being rubbed down and chatted up by a school boy interested in practicing English.
After that escapade, tea was necessary, so we slipped into a chai shop run by a pair of entrepreneurial ‘brothers’ eager to share and talk about their many visitors from all over the world. They had a few notebooks that they had filled with notes from their guests and proudly flipped through the pages showing notes from customers hailing from the USA, Japan, Spain, Australia, Korea, etc. I thought it was a neat way to keep a journal of their shop, and later learned that it was a technique used by many in the tourism industry (or elaborate scam).
Back at the ghats, we watched as a body, covered in brightly colored silk was escorted by boat and family members to the middle of the river. There was no singing or crying, and no women were present. They simply gave the body to the river and rowed back to shore. Instead of cremation, the body is given to the river because they either did not die of natural causes, were pregnant, or were too young.
Manikarnika Ghat is the larger of the burning ghats and was quite the experience. A ‘kind’ man only interested in teaching us about the ceremony (b.s.) explained a bit about the process of cremation. Nearly 200-300 bodies are cremated everyday and you are cremated on different levels based on your caste. The area was covered with tourists, cows, dogs, and grieving families (only men).
A bull stood over the body of a dead woman who was waiting to be cremated and the creep ‘helping’ us wanted to lead us in closer for a better view. At this point, I got frustrated with him and his antics and decided to ditch him as he cursed us with bad karma. Most of the day was spent kindly telling people ‘no’, but there was a breaking point and it was time for dinner.
Although the ghats represent the life of the city for many visitors, it was obvious that the city really exists atop the steps leading to the Ganges and in the maze-like streets of the town.