I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything

Varanasi. The city where people come to die. Or if you’re Western like Michelle, Freek and me, it is where you come to get stomach problems and lie around writhing in discomfort for a couple of days in your hot hotel room, lying on your bed under a fan spinning around and around that is doing nothing more than recycling the hot air throughout the room.

Children from our alley

Children from our alley

And all you want is a moment of coolness but you know that it is just too damn hot outside for there to be any chance at all of that. But there is a break when a cow right outside your window belts out a deep guttural ‘MEEENNNNHHHH’ and you laugh and remember what a different world it is in India.

Welcome to Varanasi in the dead heat of the summer where in our five days here it reached over 115F every day. It is one of the oldest cities in the world and a city that grew because of its sacred place in the religious ceremonies of not just Hindus but all other religions.

A Varanasi local

A Varanasi local

It is said that anyone that dies in Varanasi will attain enlightenment and be freed from eternal suffering and so will not be born again. But as my friend Cesar says “I’m kind of enjoying this life so I’m not sure I wouldn’t want to come back.” Well said, Cesar. But the people who come here to live out their final years living amongst one another in small homes would probably not be of the same opinion. Even Buddha thought it was a cool place to go to as he walked 250km to get here after attaining enlightenment in nearby Bodhgaya. Sarnath, 10km north of Varanasi, is where Buddha gave his first of thousands of teachings to his five disciples.

Life on the Ganges

Life on the Ganges

And it’s not just popular with people. Animals love it too. Cows, water buffaloes, dogs, chickens and goats roam freely throughout the city. It’s amazing to see how closely the animals all hang out among each other, although not really with each other. I have to yet to see a chicken and a cow going for a friendly stroll down to the Ganges. Dogs, however, do seem to hang out with the cows and follow them wherever they go, as if they’re protecting them. In colder weather dogs will literally sleep on the cows for the added warmth.

Cows are by far at the highest end of the status ladder. Try to take the horns off a cow and you’re looking at seven years in prison. Bulls live a great life here.

Washing the body in the Ganges

Washing the body in the Ganges

They just walk around, or more accurately stand around as they seem to do most of the time, and rummage through anything they want for food. One bull in particular is fond of upending trash cans at night to search for a late night snack. Try stopping that bull. During the heat of the day you’ll find families of water buffaloes and a few straggling cows all kicking it in the Ganges. During the day you’ll see the water buffaloes just chilling out in the Ganges, their bodies completely submerged in the water with just their heads above the surface. And just before sunset you’ll see a family of ten or so water buffaloes strolling down the main road on their way back home after a hard day’s work, effectively blocking half of the road.

Morning life on the Ganges

Morning life on the Ganges

Varanasi is bordered by the Ganges river to the east and the Ganges is where everything is at. There are over 370 ghats leading down to the river and it would take over three hours by row boat to go from the first ghat to the last one. Each ghat has a name and some are more popular than others. Some are used by people from a particular area of the country. And a couple of them are the burning ghats where dead bodies are brought within hours of death to be burned.

When someone dies it is an involved ceremony as is everything in India. First, the body is washed with honey, fennel, oils and other things to clean the chakras. Then the body is placed on a bed (similar to a stretcher) where it is covered by a bright colored sheet that is pulled to the corners so you can’t really see the shape of the body underneath.

The burning ghat

The burning ghat

Four men then carry the body down to the river to give it a final washing, chanting mantras the entire walk down. Each of the men takes five drinks of the holy river water. (If I took even just one drink of the Ganges I would probably not be here right now.)

The body is then laid on a bed of wood close to the river and then covered with more wood, in total over 300 kg of wood for one body. The male members of the family are all near the body while all this is happening. The eldest son shaves all his hair on his head, face and underarms in mourning. Hindus will keep a lone lock of hair in the upper back of the head; think of a ponytail that’s six inches too high. Females are not allowed at the burning for two reasons. First, because they get too emotional (the literal explanation I was given). Second, because in the past they sometimes lost all control and would throw themselves into the fire and no one wants that.

Preparing the fire

Preparing the fire

The local who was telling me about all this proudly pointed out how stoic all the men looked and that they were actually happy because the deceased was going to a better place. Bright orange flower wreaths are laid across the body and from what I could tell they end up as a floral snack for the goats lingering nearby.

I’m sure I’m leaving out some parts of the involved ceremony but soon after all of this it is time to light the pyre. One of the most important Hindu Gods, Shiva, has an eternal fire that is burning all day and night and that is being tended by someone at all times of day. This is the source of the fire that is used to burn the bodies. A small bed of straw is lit from Shiva’s fire and is brought to the body. The eldest son carries the burning bed of straw under the body, walking around it five times. The number five appears in many places in Hindu ceremonies and it’s used to represent Earth, Wind, Fire, Water and Spirit.

Two birds get a free ride

Two birds get a free ride

The body burns for around three hours. Surprisingly I did not smell any ‘meaty’ odors coming from the fire as I had heard I would. I asked a local about why that is and he said it is because “Lord Shiva’s fire cleans out all the bad smells.” Someone needs to market this fire in the U.S.

Alas, not everyone gets to burn in Varanasi. Monks, children, lepers and snake bite victims are among those that do not get burned because it is believed they have already been kissed by Shiva. Instead, a large stone is tied around their body and they are dropped into the Ganges. One can only imagine how many bodies are lying at the bottom of the river, although as I was witness to, I don’t believe the bodies stay intact for too long before they become food.

Dog eating child's hand

Dog eating child's hand

A dog near the river was happily playing with a dead child’s hand that must have floated up from the bottom of the river, trying to separate the hand from the tendon. Finally succeeding in removing the tendon, he put the hand in his mouth and gulped it down in one go.

This is Varanasi, where you sense that things have been going on this way for a long, long time and you can feel the weight of the city, of all the bodies that have passed through here over all the centuries. Sunrise finds hundreds, if not thousands, of people starting their day on the ghats with a bath or a swim, or washing their clothes, or getting the fire wood ready.

And as a traveler through here, the closest you can get to being part of the action is taking a dip yourself into the murky, green, questionable, mysterious waters of the Ganges to wash away all of your sins. It is a tempting offer.

The amazing water buffalo

The amazing water buffalo

Our hotel owner said he no longer goes in because it is too dirty, too much pollution from upstream, not to mention all the dead bodies and everyone doing their thing in the river each morning. In the end, I said f*ck it. As we were heading back to our hotel after a sunrise boat trip, I asked our boat driver to head to the middle of the river where the current was strongest, thinking that would be the best bet for where the cleanest water would be.

Freek was the first one in. I got down to my boxers and jumped in right after, half expecting my skin to melt off my bones the instant I touched the water. But it didn’t. In fact it felt fine.

A Sadhu on the ghats

A Sadhu on the ghats

If anything it was maybe a bit too warm. I went all the way under and stayed in long enough to make sure all my sins got cleansed, climbed back on board the boat and rinsed myself off with a two liter of water I had brought along just for this purpose. A week later and no problems to report.

And why would there be? It’s not like this is the first time someone jumped into the Ganges. People have been doing that here for a long, long time.

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