Asia, Destinations, India, Spirit

A matter of life and death in Varanasi

June 5, 2011

Beneath its grubby exterior, Varanasi shines

I’m not going to lie to you.

Varanasi, the holy ancient city of Benares, is grubby and rough. It’s muddy. It’s either oppressively humid or bitingly cold. It smells and the water at this point of the river Ganges is probably radioactive. It’s not uncommon to come across the body of a dog or some other animal, or worse, lying half concealed in the mud.

All night and all day bodies burn on funeral pyres along the riverside and the light is yellow under a fug of smoke and ash. It makes your nose run and your eyes water.

It’s a heaving, breathing mess of humanity. People come to Varanasi to die. They come to be reborn in the dirty waters of the mother Ganga.

It’s confronting. It’s frustrating. It’s mesmerising.

And I love it.

The morning bathing ritual on the Ganges at Varanasi

This was my second visit to Varanasi. My first was during the dead of winter and I arrived by boat, nearly stepping on the carcass of a dog as I stepped onto the banks of the river and in to the city formerly known as Benares.

Varanasi is a cacophony of sounds and colour. You can walk all the way along the ghats, past rows and rows of off-white shirts drying in the sun, dodging flower sellers, snake charmers and children flying kites and half naked holy men.

Or, if you’re like me, not dodging but rather tripping over the fishing wire of a little boy’s kite and tangling it miserably. Oops.

A snake charmer plays a tune on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, India

People of all ages come to Varanasi. For most, it’s the pilgrimage of a lifetime. In the mornings and early evenings they bathe, usually fully clothed, in the river. One of the oldest cities in the world, it’s a ritual that has been taking place here every day for countless years.

Girls squeal with laughter in the Ganges at Varanasi

This time around, I hired a rowboat several times, viewing the city from the water at sunrise and again at dusk.

A boatman rows upstream in Varanasi, India

I’d already witnessed the nightly ganga aarti ceremony that takes place at Dasaswamedh Ghat on my first trip, so this time I stayed mostly away from the action and took photographs upriver.

Dusk falls over Varanasi

The ghats at Varanasi

Evening lights on the Ganges at Varanasi, India

The role that the Ganges plays in life in Varanasi is a little confusing.

It’s a holy river, and no meat, eggs or alcohol can be consumed on or around it. But at the same time, pilgrims throw their trash in it, defecate in it, bathe in it and if the bodies of their relatives don’t burn completely, throw what’s left in it.

The Ganges at Varanasi

One afternoon I took a boat onto the river and at one point, close to the banks, the air began to thicken with an unsettlingly familiar but unnameable stench that was somewhere between garbage, sewage and rotting meat.

I couldn’t quite work out what it was until the boatman pointed out a body, purple and stripped of skin in parts, swollen with river water and gasses.

Face down, it was bobbing up and down on the wake of other boats. I only glanced at it quickly before swallowing hard and looking away.

We gave it a wide berth.

Not much further upriver was a torso, in a similar condition but without the smell. The boatman nearly knocked it with his oar.

It wasn’t particularly pleasant and made even worse by seeing people swimming and laughing and joking in the same water not too far away.

But you know what?

That’s Varanasi. Life and death coexist here.

And that’s what I love about it. The smell, the dirt, the atmosphere creeps under your skin.

And in a place where death is on display for anyone to see, it’s the life along the river that is my lasting impression of the city. It’s chaotic, the ghats swarm with people.

Varanasi is a place where you can look death in the face and see life reflected back.

Dusk falls over the Ganges at Varanasi


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  • Reply Manyu June 5, 2011 at 8:10 am

    Great article! I always tell my friends that going to India is a very unique experience. You will either LOVE it or HATE it. There’s no in-between. All depends on how you look at it, just like your article states.

    Loved it, keep it coming!

    • Reply MeganRTW June 5, 2011 at 6:49 pm

      You’re right Manyu – there is very rarely an in-between when it comes to India! I think so long as you’re prepared for the shock, you’ll do ok

  • Reply Naomi June 5, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    The last line is such a great quote. I worked with mummies when I was in Peru, but I sincerely doubt that will prepare me for seeing fresh corpses at Varanasi whenever I get there…

    • Reply MeganRTW June 5, 2011 at 6:52 pm

      Wow, with mummies? That would have been creepy…though I can see how it wouldn’t quite have had the same ick factor as it would have if the mummy had been fresh!

      You won’t necessarily see corpses in Varanasi – I didn’t see any on my first visit. I was so far away from the funeral pyres and the remains were covered in a white sheet anyway. Definitely didn’t see any in the river that first time. I think I was just unlucky this time!

  • Reply sameer singh June 5, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    so very true.. 🙂

  • Reply Lily (Explore for a Year) June 5, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    Great article Megan. India is an eye-opener because the environment forces you to look beyond labelling things as “good, bad, gross, smelly” and so on. I don’t think one would be able to cope in India unless they’re able to accept things for what they are, in that they’re neither “good/bad” or “clean/dirty”, they just are what they are. Kind of like life and death. In western countries we distance ourselves from “bad” things like sickness and death, and even dress it up to help us deal with it like at funerals, but in reality “life and death coexist” as you put it.

    – Lily

    • Reply Megan June 5, 2011 at 7:32 pm

      You’re exactly right, Lily! To survive India you just have to take what it throws at you and expect the unexpected, and expect to be rattled. India is India!

  • Reply Angela June 5, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    Beautiful description of Varanasi and great pictures. Last time I went to India I was very close but couldn’t make it, and anyway even if I did it would have been in a hurry, so I preferred to leave it to next time, the city deserves more than just a jump.

    • Reply MeganRTW June 6, 2011 at 9:29 pm

      Thanks Angela. You’re right – Varanasi definitely deserves some time to pause and reflect and just be in it!

  • Reply Elise June 6, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Megan, I love your writing!
    You make it so enjoyable to read even with such confronting things as the Ghats and Varanasi.
    When we visited there I felt the same way-I was so overwhelmed by everything-although I don’t think I could go as far and say I love it like you did.
    Thanks for such an enjoyable (if that’s the right word!) post about life and death in Varanasi.

    • Reply MeganRTW June 6, 2011 at 9:29 pm

      Aw, thanks Elise. Varanasi is certainly overwhelming. I didn’t really enjoy it very much the first time around, but after I left and the more I mulled over my experiences I began to appreciate it. I think knowing exactly what to expect this time around (and being pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t quite so stressful as I remembered) really helped.

  • Reply jade June 6, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    Love your description… even though I’m not sure I would be as comfortable as you seem to be!

    • Reply MeganRTW June 6, 2011 at 9:27 pm

      Thanks Jade – not sure I would call it comfortable, maybe just more willing to let go and embrace it than most! 😀

  • Reply The Travel Chica June 7, 2011 at 12:13 am

    You really make this place come to life in this post. It’s great that you can look at a place that to many outsiders would seem depressing and see something more.

    • Reply MeganRTW June 8, 2011 at 8:10 am

      Thanks Stephanie 🙂 Varanasi is truly a place where you need to look past the icky stuff to appreciate what it really has to offer!

  • Reply Sebastian June 7, 2011 at 1:53 am

    I think that is why it’s called “incredible india” right? The controversy in this country is amazing. I have lots of indian friends and hope to visit them in the close future.

    Your writing is exceptional I really enjoyed reading your article!

    • Reply MeganRTW June 8, 2011 at 8:10 am

      Exactly, Sebastian! I love that slogan. It’s so apt. Visiting friends in India would be awesome, you should do it!

  • Reply Giulia June 7, 2011 at 3:29 am

    Oh, wow, amazing post… In these days I am seriously thinking of going to India (hope I can ask you for some advice?) and when I read this I am all like “I want to go!!!” – I am kinda used to smell, dirt and mess so I think I am somewhat prepared… maybe. Well, there’s just one way to find out… 🙂

    • Reply MeganRTW June 8, 2011 at 8:11 am

      Of course you can ask me for advice, Giulia! In fact, you’ll probably have trouble getting me to stop talking! I think after spending so much time in Egypt nothing about INdia will surprise you – I think they’re pretty much on par with hassle and dirtiness – Egypt maybe a little worse!

  • Reply Adam June 11, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    Beautiful write-up of a truly mesmerizing city! Love your photos, too.

    • Reply Megan June 12, 2011 at 11:29 am

      Thanks Adam 🙂

  • Reply Micamyx|Senyorita June 12, 2011 at 9:07 am

    Haven’t been to India, but I am planning to embark on a solo trip there by late next year as encouraged by a friend. He particularly mentioned about Varanasi and how he wants to die there too. He even said that his trip to Varanasi is the turning point of his life as he witnessed the rituals you mentioned. I’m just glad that when I read your entry, it is not as morbid as how I envision it when my friend narrated the experience to me. All i can say for now is that i’m glad that some countries managed to really retain their rituals. But i dunno. I’m confused about my stand hehe 😛

    • Reply Megan June 12, 2011 at 11:31 am

      It’s definitely a different experience to anything you will have seen before! I can’t say that my experiences there made me want to die there, but it does alter your perceptions on the relationship between life and death.

      Let me know if you need any tips for planning your trip!

  • Reply Mike Lenzen | Traveled Earth June 16, 2011 at 2:34 am

    Those pictures of the kids bathing creeps me out, knowing whats in the water. Great write up. This place seems so different to me.

    • Reply MeganRTW June 16, 2011 at 10:46 am

      It’s certainly not like any other place on earth, Mike! Are you guys thinking of including India in your itinerary?

  • Reply GRRRL TRAVELER July 10, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    Wow. I love Varanasi and unfortunately, on my recent trip didn’t get to revisit it. I saw bodies being burnt at the burning ghat. But you actually got to see bobbing corpses in the Ganges?! Wow. Hard core. But i agree. There’s a beauty to life & death; they are married in Varanasi.

    • Reply MeganRTW July 11, 2011 at 3:44 am

      Haha you’re right Christine it was pretty hard core because I’M hard core 😀

  • Reply Myriam September 27, 2011 at 3:23 am

    Thank you for this post !! I went to Varanasi 10 years ago. I loved it. Somehow I never go back to the same place, except to see people. I’m going back to India in 2 weeks, and definitely stopping by Varanasi – again.

    • Reply MeganRTW September 30, 2011 at 11:17 pm

      So jealous you’re off to India Myriam! I can’t wait to go back.

      • Reply Myriam October 1, 2011 at 6:56 pm

        yeah.. but there are SO MANY places in this world to see !! 😉

  • Reply Round We Go February 3, 2012 at 5:13 am

    You have some great photographs here and I like your short, stuttered way of writing. I can’t say I’m itching to go back to Varanasi any time soon, but you can’t argue that it’s one of the world’s more fascinating places.

    • Reply MeganRTW February 8, 2012 at 7:58 pm

      Thanks 🙂 Varanasi is definitely beguiling. Worth a visit if you make it to India 🙂

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