India Travels By Country

Varanasi: The City of Light and Death

January 30, 2017

The ghats of Varanasi teem with people as the sun rises above the river banks. The Ganges, the holiest and most sacred river in the Hindu world, drudges along, slowly, knowingly, carrying the water and land from the Himalaya. Its movement gives a feeling of passage, transience, impermanence, fragility, objectivity, dispossession and vitality. The most holy city in India opens its eyes.

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Men and women bath in the holy water. Pray in the holy water. Drink the holy water. This is their moment of salvation. Many dedicating their lives to this pilgrimage.

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In the calmness of the morning the sadhus mediate and chant. Breath into their renunciation of worldly pleasures. Live in the bliss of oneness, of self-realization, of enlightenment. They do not ask, they do not take, they only receive. Awaiting their departure from the earthly world and their entrance to Moksha, liberation.

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By day, the touts are out. The tourists are photographing, floating the river in the thin wooden oar-powered boats, propelled by the skinny biceps of young Indian entrepreneurs. Dust rises to the air as the roads jam with motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Shouts of “chai” ring in the air as samosas sizzle in the oil of yesterday. The trash burns. The cows sit in the middle of road and remain calm in the center of it all. Varanasi, like much of India, is directed chaos.

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By night, Varanasi comes alive, with death. The burning ghats, cremation of the dead. Their embers carrying the ashes of those who are fortunate enough to die in Varanasi. Elation and sadness is in the air as the ash of loved ones rain down on the people standing by. Ash in our mouths, we watch. It takes three hours in burn a body. The bones are thrown in the river, the remaining ash gathered and kept. Then, the next pyre, the next body. Photos are strictly prohibited. An estimated 150 bodies burn everyday.

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Hindus believe death in Varanasi will bring nirvana, salvation, entrance to Moksha, cessation of rebirth and worldly suffering. Many sick and elderly come to Varanasi to await death, in a hospice, or on the street. Dead bodies are constantly carried through the streets to the ghats.

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