Death & Rebirth on the River Ganges: A sunset boat tour of Varanasi. India cremation grounds & ghats.
As any Goth can tell you, there’s beauty to be found in death and decay. Traveling in India, Yukiro and I came face-to-face with these aspects every day– especially in Varanasi, on the River Ganges.
In my first post about this holy city, we visited Buddhist Sarnath and Hindu temples with Experience Varanasi tours. Now, we’ll join holy men at the banks of the Ganga, the famous river that flows throughout India.
Many parts of India are quite developed (especially Mumbai and New Delhi). However, Varanasi still feels like an ancient city, teeming with citizens and spiritual pilgrims. Life revolves around the River Ganges: every day, you can see dozens of men bathing in the holy waters.
The Hindu cremation ritual also takes place on the steps of the Ganges. I hope you’ll keep an open mind as we dive into this aspect of Indian culture (don’t worry, there are no graphic photos of the bodies). If you’re anything like us, I’m sure you will find these ceremonies riveting.
Yukiro and I arranged our India trip with Janu Private Tours. It made the world of difference to travel with our own private guide, car, and driver: we were able to see multiple cities in a short time, and never worry about the logistics. Mr. Janu and his guides were always on hand to answer our questions expertly, and with a smile.
Even for super-experienced travelers like ourselves, Varanasi (aka Kashi or Benares) is a challenging destination. It’s sensory overload: people and tuk-tuks everywhere, cows and garbage in the streets, and yes — you’ll encounter excrement at some point! It would have been very stressful if we had tried to come here and get around on our own.
Janu can arrange tours anywhere in India, and he linked us with Kunal Rakshit of Experience Varanasi for this final portion of the journey (since we had to fly one hour from Delhi). Kunal met us at the airport, and from the start, we knew we were in the best possible hands. He’s a gentleman, with a kind and thoughtful demeanor that was exactly what we needed for navigating this intense city.
Kunal is a great listener, and customized the tour to exactly match our interests and goals. As we drove through the city, he struck a great balance between delivering interesting information, answering our questions, and just letting us soak it all in.
Our driver, Ravi, was an expert at navigating through the “free for all” streets. We got off to walk through Godowlia Road, which is for pedestrians only and leads to the riverfront. Don’t expect a peaceful stroll: motorbikes honk and zip by you, cows block your path, and vendors come up to sell you goods. (But oh, what a way to dive into the heart of Varanasi, and live in the moment!)
We were surrounded by captivating sights, smells and colors. Kunal explained that these are pilgrims who journeyed to Varanasi; they wear orange, bear flowers, and paint their foreheads. Notice that all of these young men are barefoot!
In Varanasi, you’ll come across all sorts of unexpected scenes. We were glad Kunal was there to explain everything. For example, holding hands is merely a platonic, friendly gesture in India. (Although the government did establish the freedom of sexual orientation and the third gender, as I discussed in the Jaipur post.)
What’s the deal with the cattle everywhere? Cows are considered sacred by Hindus: they provide life-sustaining milk, and drawings show the gods and goddesses living inside a cow. As a result, “holy cows” roam freely in India, and can often block your path.
Elephants also have special status, and one of the Hindu gods — Ganesha — has the head of an elephant. What better place than Varanasi to wear my pink Lord Ganesh raincoat by Print All Over Me? (You can print a rain jacket with any type of design, or choose one from the site as I did.)
While you’ll certainly experience culture-shock, India is a safe country. Simply take precautions and be aware, and you won’t run into any difficulties.
For example: I didn’t get stomach sick at all! Our guides always recommended delicious Indian restaurants that prepared food carefully, as foreigners are not accustomed to the local water. We ate extremely well here, even though we avoided street food as a precaution.
Varanasi can be a shock to the system, but it was one of the top moments of our entire trip. I’ve traveled to 60+ countries, and I can genuinely say there is no place quite like this.
Yukiro and I enjoyed observing the fashion of the Indian women around us. Many come to Varanasi to visit Hindu temples, and take part in festivals and rituals.
This is an incredible city of spiritual power. We encountered holy men or “saddhus” who have renounced the worldly life. There are 4 or 5 million sadhus in all of India. Some wander naked, some take on pledges to never sit down, or other ascetic feats. I read about one renunciant who has held up his right arm for over 35 years!
Many people will stare or approach you. Simply say no thank you and move on, and you won’t run into any issues.
We reached the ghats, or steps leading into the Ganges river. I saw a man petting and feeding a cow, and putting a garland around its neck… they sure are treated like royalty here.
The Ganges is the most sacred river to Hindus, and it is worshiped as the goddess Ganga. You can understand how meaningful it is for these orange-clad pilgrims to journey to these waters.
I put together some clips of Varanasi / Kashi / Benares in this video, to give you a better sense of the colors and chaos.
There’s a palpable energy here. (We covered up our limbs to avoid mosquito bites, and wore raincoats as there was briefly a light drizzle.)
Look up, and you’ll see a radiant painting of Shiva in blue. The story goes that Lord Shiva turned blue because he drank poison to save creation from destruction. In India, blue-colored skin is also interpreted as the aura of a spiritual body.
Yukiro and I enjoyed getting to know our new friend, Kunal Rakshit. Born and brought up in Varanasi, he completed an MBA and worked in finance before starting Experience Varanasi. As a guide, he aims to show travellers the essence of the local culture.
It’s fascinating that Hindus consider the waters of the River Ganges to be purifying. At the same time, this has unfortunately become one of the most polluted bodies of water on the planet. Untreated sewage is pumped into the river, and bodies are burned and released into the waters.
About 400 million people live by the Ganges, and use it on a daily basis for bathing, washing, cooking, and more. If you grow up here, your body is accustomed to the contents of the water — and you won’t get sick. (We even saw a man scoop his hand into these brown waters, and drink from it!)
However, the increasing bacterial count and pollution levels are a major concern. Prime Minister Modi is leading a “Clean India” initiative to improve sanitation, but it’s difficult to change long-time behaviors.
As I mentioned before, simply be aware, keep an open mind, and take precautions — as foreigners are not used to the bacteria in these waters. We were careful to use hand sanitizer and wash our hands, and didn’t end up getting ill.
When you’re in Varanasi, it’s an absolute must to hire one of the rowers to take you on boat ride along the Ganga. Since we were with Kunal, the rowboat was already arranged, and we didn’t have to haggle over prices and hours.
Our rower did an impressive job of navigating the water currents, which can get strong. Kunal helped us buy these these offerings of flowers and candles as well, so that we take part in the local ritual.
You’ve got to love Indian ingenuity… It looks like someone’s math homework was recycled to make this pretty offering! We made a wish and placed it into the waters, for the goddess Ganga to carry away.
The boat took us to Manikarnika Ghat, one of the oldest in Varanasi and dating back to at least the 5th century. This is where bodies are cremated, and the remains are put into the River Ganges.
We were able to take photos from afar (out of respect), and then pull up a little closer to see the cremations. We were glad to have Kunal with us, to speak with us about what we were witnessing.
We saw groups of men carrying a body wrapped in cloths down to the banks, on a bamboo stretcher. The chief mourner pays the mortician for the holy fire. The body is set onto the wooden pyre and burned in the flames, while the mourners perform other rituals.
The area is heavy with smoke and ash, but it blew in the direction away from the waters so we could watch from the boat without trouble. Kunal discussed the significance of Varanasi as a place for liberation from the cycles of birth and death. Many come to the Great Cremation Ground, or Mahashmshana to die, as many believe this results in “moksha” (release). Others bring ashes here and place them into the holy waters.
Death is hidden in Western culture, but it’s up close and personal in Varanasi. It’s not easy to see the Hindu cremations, but I encourage you to put aside any reservations and experience this ceremony for the dead.
After, the “chief mourner” bathes publicly among many others, in another part of the River Ganges. Washing in these waters helps to cleanse and purify one’s karma.
As the sun began to lower, our rowboat reached the Dasaswamedh ghat where the “aarti ceremony” takes place every sunset. As you can see, many others from all over India have come here to witness it too.
The aarti ceremony is a devotional to the goddess Ganga. Of course, there are other gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon that are worshiped here too. These black and white posters show the “lingam” of shiva, and Kali (goddess of death) with her outstretched tongue. And Varanasi is the permanent abode of Lord Shiva.
Tip for those of you allergic to mosquitoes, like me: there are so many of these little buggers at dusk, especially by the water. Make sure you cover up entirely, and spray yourself with DEET (the natural stuff simply doesn’t work). Yukiro and I used copious amounts of Bens 100 mosquito spray and remarkably, we didn’t get bitten that night.
Rather than jostle with the crowds on shore, we could watch the aarti performance from our private boat. We saw young priests take the stage, and chant invocations to the Mother Goddess Ganga. They then held up incense, candelabras of fire, and peacock feathers, moving them to the rhythm of the beat.
Our boatman brought us back to the main ghat, and we walked back to our car in a daze. Varanasi at night is straight out of a lucid dream. What goes on in the mind of this dreadlocked holy wanderer, skin smeared with ashes from the pyres?
What can I say but… Holy cow! Varanasi is a destination that blew my mind — and that’s hard to do these days, considering how much I travel.
Namaste Janu Private Tours for showing us all these enthralling aspects of your country. If you come to the holy city on the Ganges, please reach out to Kunal at Experience Varanasi to take you around. He was an outstanding guide; we were glad for his deep knowledge and calming personality, especially when we saw challenging places such as the funeral pyres.
And that’s all for the land of Vishnu and Shakti, until I return again. For more, you can revisit our entire journey with Mr Janu (through Delhi, Utter Pradesh, Rajasthan) — all my India travel stories are here.