After the madness of Holi we escaped for a week of calm by the famous ghats of Varanasi. Situated on the banks of the river Ganges, Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world and India’s spiritual capital. Every day thousands of pilgrims arrive to bathe and pray in its sacred waters. From open air cremations to morning dips, everything revolves around the river.
Traditionally Hinduism dictates that humans are trapped in a continuous cycle of death and rebirth called samsara. When a person dies, their soul is reborn in a different body, dependent on how the previous life was lived (karma), and the process continues. Fire is associated with purity and so Hindu’s believe that if a deceased’s ashes are laid in the Ganges at Varanasi, their soul will be transported to heaven and escape the cycle of rebirth achieving moksha and eternal peace.
Devotees travel from across the world to spend their final days in Varanasi, and a continual flow of bodies also arrive via the river and back streets. To accommodate, the cremation ghats burn through the night, consuming over 300 corpses a day. An average cremation uses roughly 80kg of wood, and costs about 30 quid. Holy men, leppers and small children are not burned, but instead sunk to the bottom of the Ganges. It is not uncommon to be stopped in the street by elderly beggars collecting money to pay for their own cremation. Varanasi was my favourite city in India, and one of the most unique and memorable places I have ever visited.