I’d never seen a dead body before I visited Varanasi.
“Cremation is education!” Enthused the chirpy dalit who had volunteered himself as our guide to the funeral ghat. “Burning is learning!”
Hindus say that if you die in Varanasi your soul will travel straight to paradise, bypassing the messy cycles of reincarnation. The old and the sick line the streets here, gazing out onto the holy, polluted river Ganges and quietly waiting to take their turn upon the funeral pyre. Mourners wear white and are all male. “Women are not allowed,” the guide explains. “They cry too much. It’s bad for the departing soul.”
Some say Varanasi is the “real” India. It’s certainly an experience. You spend your days sidestepping cowshit and dodging charging bulls as you attempt to climb the thousand and one steps of the ghats which line the waterfront. You watch prayer ceremonies of smoke and incense and fire and meditate in a temple as old as time, chanting old Hindu mantras and calling upon gods older than time itself to cast their eyes to the lives of the living. You buy saris, luxuriating in the piles and piles of sparkling material laid out in front of you. You squeeze through narrow alleyways and up narrower stairs, and spend lazy afternoons gazing out from rooftop restaurants and hotel balconies.
Running through it all, ever present, is the Ganges, that colossal body of water which houses innumerous dead, where Indian men and women wash their clothes and bodies, and where they throw their litter; a river of blessings, plastic bottles and floating human waste. We took a boat trip along it, heavy oars dragging in our hands, watching the skyline of a city where time stands still.
There is nothing, nothing in this world, that can prepare you for your first moments in Varanasi; that moment when you stare into your first fire and realise that those are not funny shaped logs but feet, real, human, feet, and that they are identical to the pair which are attached to your legs, your body, your soul. The smoke curls up, carrying the ashes of someone you never knew off to Moksha, or Nirvana, or Heaven… or perhaps nothing at all.