One of the most memorable parts of my time in Varanasi was learning about Hindu views on death and dying. One thing we did was a Ganges boat ride to see the city from the Ganges river, which is considered holy water. Thanks to the local hook up from our guide, Sonu, we paid 300 rupees for the hour boat ride (about $6 USD). I’ve heard the going rate can be up to 1,000 rupees per hour.
People come from all over the world to bathe in its waters, despite the fact that the water is horribly polluted from garbage and nearby metal refining factories. There is some debate on whether purifying the water negatives the holiness. The current school of thought is that boiling the water is okay, but chemically treating or filtering it is a no-go.
The contrast between the water in Varanasi (first) and Rishikesh (second), which is further north is quite striking.
If you die in Varanasi, you are more likely to go to heaven, so the city is full of the elderly and infirm who often live at the temples, begging for food until they can pass to their next life. Most Hindus are cremated over an open wood-burning fire, as this is thought to be the most beneficial to the departed soul. A number of years ago, the government created electric crematoriums, in hopes to make the burial process more eco friendly. Unfortunately, this trend never caught on and now they are only used for unclaimed bodies and the destitute. We were able to see the funeral pyres on the beach of the ganges. The families stay with the bodies and mourn and celebrate until the fire is done burning, about three hours. It was quite startling to see the mounds of firewood with charred human limbs hang out of the sides.
Children under the age of 12 or 13, pregnant women, people with leprosy, and the very old are not cremated. Instead, the bodies are bound tightly and taken outside the city, and sunk in the Ganges. We took a boat ride on the Ganges and came across a body gently bobbing up and down near one of the boats. When we inquired of Sonu, he told us that either this was one of the exceptions to cremation that had mistakenly risen to the surface, or more likely, there was foul play afoot and the person had been murdered. As if this was not gruesome enough, about 10 yards away, a group of children was receiving a swimming lesson! Our response was much more horrified than Sonu’s. Hindus are much more accepting of death than we are. Perhaps part of it comes from the belief of reincarnation and the hope that the dead will come back as something even more fortunate in their next life.
The Ganges boat ride was also the best way to see the Ghats, or holy steps, that Varanasi is famous for. The Ghats are the center of city life and are always crowded with bathers, pilgrims, holy men, wallahs (sellers) and the homeless.
Two blonde haired, blue eyed girls in a boat on the Ganges were quite a novelty for others on the river. Our entire trip was punctuated by namaste’s and waves from pilgrims and bathers.
The water buffalo, however, were not impressed.