Without a doubt, Varanasi (also known as Benares) is the most Hindu and most interesting place we visited. Located on the banks of the holy Ganges River, it is possibly the spiritual capital of India. People come here to pray, to bathe in the holy river, and to end their lives. We were told, “A Hindu person’s goal is to die on the banks of the Ganges.” Many people are brought here after death to be cremated, as it is believed that cremation at Varanasi ends the cycle of re-birth. You can watch the cremation process, as most are outdoors on the banks of the river. Some western people are repulsed by the sight, but to me it’s a simpler and more natural end, compared to the sterile, artificial funeral and burial or cremation processes we use in the west.
We learned so much and took so many pictures here that I've tried to divide our experience into sections divided roughly into two subject areas: life and the end of life, and prayer and those who pray.
Life and the End of Life:
Varanasi is a big, busy city, an industrial and educational center, as well as a place of religious pilgrimage. It's known for cotton and silk fabrics, and I bought beautiful, hand-printed tablecloths and clothes here. The Buddha gave his first sermon here around 538 BCE. The Mughal emperor, Akbar, caused two Hindu temples (two of more than 23,000 in the city) to be built. The Ganges is more than a holy river; it's where people come to bathe and wash laundry as well as pray.
By western standards, the river is horribly polluted by ash, dead bodies, laundry, and human waste. A Hindu will tell you that bacteria simply do not survive in the holy river.
Two areas are set aside for cremation, and fires burn 24 hours a day. Families bring their loved ones, buy wood (sandalwood if the family is wealthy enough), pray, and watch as the staff members of the cremation ghat carefully burn the body and cast the ashes into the river.
On the morning of our second day in Varanasi, we walked to the river and watched police officers decide what was to be done with the body of a man who was laid out neatly on one of the steps. It seemed that he'd achieved his goal.
Evening Prayer Service on the Ghats
Prayer and Those Who Pray:
Thousands of people come to the Ganges in Varanasi to pray and to bathe in the holy river. I tried very hard to be discreet about taking photos, especially of those who were praying privately in the midst of the crowds. Some priests were much more open to public view. I took a few pictures of them, but some appeared to be more interested in getting coin for their photos than in praying. Most impressive were the evening prayers, which we watched from a small boat on the river. We sent small bowls and candles out onto the river with our prayers as we watched.
If we are ever fortunate enough to return to India, we will spend more time along this river.