Varanasi. It’s surely either the end of the world or the beginning. I can’t figure out which.
My airport taxi dropped me off after 90 minutes in a street that was so crowded as to appear impenetrable.
“But where’s my hostel?” I asked the driver.
“Turn right into alley. Hundred metre.”
“Er, right. Thank you. Goodbye.”
And so I humped my rucksack onto my back and waded through the throng of motorcycles and cars and rickshaws to the other side of the street, and ducked into a narrow alleyway leading god knows where into the night. I had no map and my phone is kaput, and so I had to ask stranger after doorway-sitting stranger for directions to Bunked Up hostel. I don’t even know who recommended it; I simply checked my notes one day and found the name jotted down. But I supposed I must have written it for a reason, so booked the place.
Each local person I came across thumbed me wordlessly left or right through the maze of narrow runways. You can stretch out your arms and touch both opposing walls as you pass by. I had heard from backpackers myriad that Varanasi is the most intense place you will visit in India, and it is astoundingly true. I’m glad I came here late in my trip, when culture shock has abated. The sheer outrageous volume of foreign forms will leave you breathless; in Varanasi the abject and the everyday blend seamlessly, everything coalescing into one insane unending warren of horror and beauty and humdrum.
Shrines everywhere, down every alleyway, in every window, through strange crevices and cracks; there is no escape from the idols and the wreaths of orange flowers. Every footstep brings a new smell; incense then cow shit, woodsmoke and piss, motor oil, cumin, tea, frying oil and meat. Every footstep also brings new peril; sleeping dogs, cow shit again, sandaled toes, uneven slabs of ancient rock, sewage, money bowls, whirring motorcycle tyres, crooked stairs, jingling bicycles. No cars, no tuk tuks in the warren; far too narrow. Shopkeepers huddle in storefronts two feet wide, crammed into the gap between two other stores where nothing was ever supposed to be built. A barbershop consists of a chair and a mirror and a man twirling scissors, a drug store is a wardrobe.
I found my hostel after a half hour wandering. It’s an old Hindu temple of 300 years, now converted into a sleep space for skint travellers. I checked into a gloomy dorm and made some friends. Up on the terrace, I saw for the first time in my life the Ganges. The locals call it Ganga. Here and there across the broad waters, floating candles were making their way downstream. The far bank is a desert; in the summer season the water is so low that two thirds of the vast river becomes a sandy playground on which locals ride horses and camels and play cricket. I never realised Varanasi only had one bank, but it made sense: in every photo I’d seen, only one side of the river is ever in shot. I soaked up the view and went to bed, shattered.
The next day I made a new group of friends: Audrey from Quebec, Jaymany from London, Dekel from Tel Aviv, Leonard from Utrecht. We explored the ghats together in the 10am heat. It’s too hot here, any hour. I managed Rajasthan, I managed Mumbai and Goa and Hampi, but in Varanasi I’ve found my limit, and it’s 42 degrees. I can’t do it during the daytime, it’s oppressive, abusive, burning. I swear there are saunas that are not much hotter than 42 degrees. It is a very silly temperature. I disagree with it strongly.
I’ve just realised that I used the word ghats without explain what a ghat is. If you don’t know, a ghat is simply a flight of steps leading down to a river, often a holy one. The riverside in Varanasi is composed entirely of them. Some of them have guest houses at the top, some have cafes, most have temples. Near to Assi Ghat we ate ice cream sitting directly in front of a four foot high fan that was blasting on full power but only succeeded in blowing warm air on us.
We explored Varanasi University campus and a couple of nearby temples, and later in the day we had a bhang lassi in a tiny café somewhere in the Varanasi maze. I was wary after consuming the weed smoothie on my first day in India and spending that whole day off my tits unable to think or make conversation, but everybody convinced me I could just have less this time and it would be fine. It wasn’t fine. I had about three quarters of a lassi and was tripping balls for around 6 hours once again. I hate bhang lassi.
While we were high everybody thought it’d be a fun idea to hop on the evening boat tour organised by the hostel. The drink hadn’t fully hit me at that point; the thing with bhang lassi, as with many edible forms of weed, is that you never know when you’ve hit peak stoned. I was already feeling brain-scrambled, and hoped that was the apex. How wrong I was. Chugging down the Ganges in a wooden boat passing by religious ceremonies and funeral pyres is intense – sober. Doing it high was a complete mindfuck. I couldn’t even process what I was seeing, and so after years of longing to see the ghats, my first real view of them was a blurry, paranoid mess. You try getting high and staring at a burning corpse for 45 minutes.
I realise that I very casually mentioned burning corpses. This is because the first time I saw the Manikarnika Ghat I was too high to comprehend what was going on, and so we shall brush that under the rug and start over. I was endlessly frustrated that I’d allowed myself to be pressured into getting high. I didn’t want to be stoned watching the ceremonies, I wanted to appreciate them and sit and think about life and death. And so, after my first full day in Varanasi, I had a rooftop beer and went to bed to sleep off that thrice-damned milkshake.
The next day I did not much of anything during the day because the heat socks you in the mouth every time you step outdoors. The ghats are dead at midday save for we stupid tourists, because the locals are smart enough to siesta in the shade. When evening came, I headed out on foot to the Manikarnika Ghat with two English girls, Danielle and Jaymany.
Now, before I go any further, it’s worth noting that Varanasi was arguably the location in India I most longed to see. I have wanted to come here for years, ever since I learned of the funerals that take place here; bodies carried through the streets, death all around. Hospices line the Ganges, full of aged Indians waiting to pass on. I wanted to see it all with my own eyes, to see life and death merge seamlessly into one, to witness a culture where death is not to be feared. There was so much I wanted to learn, to feel. And here’s what I felt, sitting before the pyres: nothing.
I expected sadness or revulsion or wonder, but the only sensation in my heart was one of complete calm. Of course, I’d have felt more if I had a connection to those involved in the funeral, but it’s more than that. The loss of life, the violence of the fire; it should have evoked something, and I was saddened and confused that it didn’t. But I’ve been thinking about it, and it makes sense.
The burning ghat is a relic from another world; photos are not allowed, and so it is mercifully free of media saturation and tourist selfies. Standing staring out over the ghat is like staring back in time; there’s nothing tying the scene to modernity. I sat on a step with my chin in my palm and watched and watched. Nothing in the scene is familiar; nothing is reminiscent of the world I know. It’s so overwhelming and powerful that every emotion attempts to leap to the fore at once, and they all get wedged together in the doorframe of your mind, and you are numb.
It’s a heap of soil and ash, with the sickly green waters of the Ganges lapping at the shore. At the top of the ghat there is a temple where an eternal fire burns; it has not been extinguished in 3500 years. One family tends to the small flame every hour of the day, and has done so for generations. Members of the family were sprawled in the shade beside the modest flame. The walls and minarets of the temple around them are black from the ash; the ash of a hundred thousand lost humans. Four hundred people are day are burned there.
There are ten or twelve pyres, and at least half of these are aflame at any one time. Mourning families carry the bodies of their loved ones through the streets to the ghat and perform the funeral rites; the body is covered in many flowers and bright sheets of gold and white or red – white for men, red for women. They are then cleansed by being lowered into the water. The flowers and golden sheets are then removed from the bodies and taken away. The flowers are dropped by the waterside, where lazy cows wake up from napping to eat them.
The family then assemble around the body. If it is a father who has died, the oldest son lights the fire. If it is a mother, the youngest. I learned that women are not allowed at the burning ghat because they cry, and Hindus believe that crying during the cleansing rituals can taint the body as it begins its final journey. The men look stoic, but stay long enough and you will see unwilling crying. If somebody begins to weep, everybody else hurries over to console them and stop the tears.
The body is placed on the pyre. The elected family member will shave his head, dress in a white robe, and light a bushel of dry reeds. Along with the rest of the congregation, they circle the pyre five times for the five elements: earth, air, water, fire, and spirit. Then they light it. Nobody is squeamish, nobody shies away. I watched what I thought was a log burning on a pyre. It was only when I saw sudden the gleaming white dome of a skull that I realised I had been staring at a person. The families light the pyre and stand by, talking to one another as their loved one burns. When the fire grows too hot, they leave to sit on the stone steps and watch from a distance.
There are five kinds of people who are not burned at the ghats: pregnant women, as the child within them is innocent and does not need cleansing, holy men, as they are already pure, children under ten, for the same reason, and lepers and snake bite victims, as it is feared their ashes could infect others. These people were once weighted with stones and sunk into the Ganges instead, however the practice is now illegal and crematoriums are used. When a corpse has finished burning at the ghats, depending on the gender of the person, different bones are left. For men, the ribcage is dense and doesn’t burn. For women, the hips. These bones are placed in the river, and are eaten by the fish.
I saw one funeral procession from start to finish. It was a red sheet; a woman. I watched as her family lit the pyre, and she disappeared. The profile of her face beneath the blanked was silhouetted against the flames, and still, even as I sat and the flames consume a human being before my eyes, no strong emotions rose to the fore. Because as the flames rise, all around them, life goes on.
Puppies play and fight in the dust. Cows eat the orange flowers and whip away flies and ash with their tails. Men swing hammers onto pegs, cracking logs in two. Families and observers and well-wishers talk and laugh among themselves. Merchant boats rumble along the river. Tourist boats drift by. A refreshments stall beside the ghat sells water bottles and snacks. Old men slumber in the shade. Not twenty metres down from the burning, children dive and bomb into the holy waters. They play cricket. Bearded goats nose through the bins. Monkeys scamper across rooftops. The black temple looms behind everything, and the dead burn; from human to ash in ten minutes, and life goes on. And that is why I was calm.
If the burning ghats revealed anything to me of the secrets of life and death, it is this: everything simply is. Often I am lost for words when trying to describe wonders of the world I have been lucky enough to witness. However, in this instance, any combination of words is too much. Death is the simplest of lessons; it doesn’t need words. The dogs get it. The cows get it, and the fish too. They’ve no reverence for death; that’s not why they come down to the ghats. They’re not drawn by the holiness of the place. They just know it’s a good place to find food.
I’ve not quite made the mental leap to any real answer, of course. I can feel that I’m close, but I accept that I’ll never get there entirely. Searching for the great answers is like walking across a room but taking a step that’s half the size each time: you’ll be walking forward forever, but you’ll never get there. And then one day you realise that perhaps the best you can do is stop walking and be happy where you are.
I don’t particularly want to know the great answers anyway. I’m not trying to transcend or find myself. I just want to see everything the world has to offer, and allow myself to be amazed. But any time I’ve come close to understanding the great mysteries of life, the answer always seems to be disarmingly simple. At the ghats, there is life, and there is death, and they are not separate. They are not two distinct forces, alien and hostile to one another. Death breeds life, life breeds death. The cows eat the flowers. Everything is part of a great cycle – a wheel if you’re Buddhist or Hindu – and it’s all so simple that to our giddy expectant minds it sounds like a cop out, a disappointment. But doesn’t it make sense that the most imposing of questions should have the most humble of answers?
When I took mushrooms for the first time by the lake in Berlin, I think I came close to the answer then, too. Everything unravelled, all the prestige we heap upon ourselves, and on that day everything seemed so clear to me. We’re all silly and clueless, here one second and gone the next, and when you look upon it with the right kind of eyes, all the beauty and horror of our lives converge into something that isn’t good or bad but just… is. The mouse and the eagle I saw in Bengaluru spring to mind. And then Aloo Baba’s teaching rolls around again.
Life, one second, no life. Be kind, love, and be happy.