Varanasi, the holy city of death
January 1, 1970
by Anastasija Stankeviciene
Varanasi, the holy city of death
Side! Side! Dead body coming!This is the phrase you will for sure hear several times walking down the narrow, dirty streets of the old part of Varanasi, sometimes also called the city of death.It has been already said a lot about Varanasi by travelers and explorers. However, it is still one of those places on the Earth where everyone will definitely come through his own, unique, exceptional experience, as Varanasi is not about the long list of must-see places and attractions for tourists; it is more about the energy of the place and people living there.
Mystical location of the city
Varanasi or Benares (old name of the city) is considered to be one of the oldest cities in the world. Moreover, people in India believe it to be the energetic center of the Universe. Even Mark Twain once wrote in his diary “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition …” Only now I realize this is not just words or stereotypes, it is a pure truth, as you will never be the same after spending at least some days here, believe me.
Everything about the city is mysterious in a way, even its geographical location. It goes without saying that the river Ganges is flowing from the North to the South of India. However, Varanasi is situated in a place, where the waters of the Ganges are moving the opposite direction. It is hardly explicable, but this is true. When I tried to get some reasonable explanations from the locals, it was said that there are no any usual rules of physics and gravitation in Varanasi, so we just have to accept it without looking for logical reasons.
One more noticeable thing concerning the location of Varanasi is that it is situated only on the one side of the river. There is absolutely nothing on the opposite side. Why does it happen in a country where the space to live is so valuable? The answer is simple. The Indians strongly believe that this so called “other” side is the place where the God Shiva takes the souls of the dead bodies, cremated on the main ghat and there is no place for us, alive. Here the Ganges becomes a symbolical border between the two worlds.
The pyres of Varanasi
The funeral pyres in the main ghat of Varanasi burn forever. It is difficult to find something that would bring more happiness to a true Hindu than the chance to be cremated in this holy place. According to the Hinduist tradition, it is believed that a person who is cremated here, in the heart of the Universe, will come out of the cycle of rebirth. In other words, he will get rid of the suffering in the material world.
There are two paths leading to the pyres. The first one is only for the family members of the deceased. The other path leads to an old abandoned building, standing on the roof of which you can see the pyres in all their “glory”. After climbing up to the roof and finally looking at the pyres, you come into a state of stupor in some sense. No, the picture in front of you is not frightful or horrible, as some may think. It is just natural. May be even too natural. The death of the material body is something no one of us will ever avoid. I do not know for how long I was standing there, watching the ceremony, hardly realizing it was not a dream. There is no time on that roof. It just disappears after you come.
Somebody touches my shoulder. A local man, standing behind me, smiles.
– Burning is learning, my friend. Cremation is education, – he says. We are watching the ceremony together in silence for some time. I am thinking about the words he just said. He is so right. The burning process is not only the physical action, there is much more behind it. It teaches us so much, making reconsider the value of our life. It is so precious. We so often forget about it.
After several minutes of silence the man starts commenting to me all the rituals that are being performed to the deceased. First of all, the body is given to the mother-Ganges just for a few seconds to “remove” all the sins with the holy water. You can understand, who is there, on a stretcher, by the color of the material the body is covered with. If it is white, a man is there. If the material is red or orange – there is a woman. As the tradition says, a man who loses his mother or wife, has to remove all the hair from his head and face. So there are always several men performing the shaving procedure near the river. After it is done, the body is carried back to the pyre place.
The cost of the ceremony
It should be said it is not so cheap ‘pleasure’ to be cremated in the holy city. In average, at least 300kg of wood is needed for one person. Considering the price of wood (400 indian rupees – around 6euros) for 1kg, it becomes unaffordable for many people. Many Indians are saving money for their cremation ceremony during almost all their lives, as they see it as the only possible way of the spiritual rescue.If you have a chance, it is always possible to donate some kilos of wood to any of the people staying in the hospice nearby and hoping to be able to save enough until the day they leave the material body.
All these things may seem extremely strange and even unacceptable to the majority of people coming from the west, where we have rather different understanding of death and everything it goes accompanied with. However, I would never say that Varanasi made me feel sad or depressed by his special atmosphere, like you may think. Just the opposite, by demonstrating the impermanence of our life and letting you to see the death so close and so natural, it makes you to think about your life as a unique gift, not just taking it for granted, giving you even more energy and enthusiasm to start to do something really important in your life.
If one day you decide you suffer from depression or do not have any interest in your life, just buy the ticket to Varanasi and go directly to the main ghat. You will come out of there different, I promise.