Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” -Gustav Flaubert
Varanasi is the most holy city of the Hindu religion. If you are lucky enough to die here you will go straight to heaven, at the very least you desire to be cremated here. The Ganges River is home to the God Shiva, the destroyer.
The first day we walked to the holy ghats to watch the bathing rituals. Hindu pilgrims come from all over the world to preform ritual bathing in the river which will cleanse you of your earthly sins. They offer flowers and diyas- floating candles and flowers to ensure safe passage to the after world.
There are many beggars in the town who are provided two meals each day from money collected from pilgrims and mourners.
Further down the ghats are the cremation sites which are busy 24/7/365. Ironically the keeper of the cremation site is a untouchable from the lowest caste. He and his family oversee all cremations, the eternal flame which is used to start the cremation fire and sell the wood supply for the fires. There is also a gas crematorium on the site but most people chose the traditional pyre.
When a loved one dies the oldest son takes care of the arrangements. The family washes the body and clothes it in white cloth. It is covered with at least one shroud, perhaps more if friends give as gifts. Once the family arrives at the cremation site they bathe the body in the river and then allow the it to dry. Meanwhile the son dresses in white after bathing, has his head shaved by a priest and offers prayers. The wood pyre is arranged with 2/3 of the wood on the ground, the body and another 1/3 of the wood on top. It takes about four hours for the body to burn. The family is given some ashes and the rest go in the river in hopes that it will break the reincarnation cycle. Children who have not yet grown teeth may not be cremated..
In the evening, we returned to watch the evening prayers. They are preformed every night by seven priests. This ceremony is full of chanting, incense burning, burning of dried cow dung and camphor, flames of ghee soaked cloth, tossing of marigold petals and smoke. It was a very moving scene.
On Saturday, the last day in Varanasi we drove to Sarnath, deer park, the most sacred Buddhist site. It was here, after reaching complete enlightenment that he delivered his first sermon to five disciples. The park has a stupa the contains some of Buddha’s ashes.
On the way back to the hotel we saw many wedding processions.