November, 2016 / Photos & Words by Kevin
Varanasi is straight up nasty.
It’s absolutely filthy. The streets are lined with trash. To help you picture this, imagine your city dump back home just exploded all over town. A trash explosion basically. Then, cows eat the trash and shit all over the place. And not just a handful of cows. I’m talking alleyways full of the gentle beasts. Oftentimes you have to slap their butt to get them to move because they block the way. A butt you don’t really want to be touching, cause there’s shit all over it. Watch out, you probably just stepped in a giant pile of shit. Oh, and keep your mouth closed. There are swarms of flies everywhere, cause you know, flies love shit. So you gotta keep your trap shut otherwise they will fly in. I’m not even exaggerating here. I just described the 3 minute walk from our hotel to our favorite cute little lunch cafe that we took each day. How’s that for working up an appetite?
But this post isn’t about Varanasi being nasty in the ‘needs to be wiped down with a warm soapy towel or Clorox bleach’ kinda way (although it could certainly use a moist towelette at least.) I’m using the term nasty as a term of endearment, to elevate the place, like how Hillary Clinton adopted the name ‘Nasty Woman’ during the election, or how people refer to the South as ‘the Dirty’.
For me, Varanasi was basically an explosion of India in all the most offensive and beautiful ways, and for that I loved it. It was sensory overload, even for India (so much in fact, that Mumbai afterwards felt like a calm and peaceful town.) It was exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. The city was disgusting, yet the energy was intensely spiritual. During the day it was loud and colorful, but at night along the river it was quiet and serene. It was all the things, as India is all the things. It was all the madness and chaos and love and delight and intensity and wonder of all of India, squeezed into a single city, that represents the entire sphere of human existence… birth, life, death, reincarnation… the entire lifecycle of our being. And all this wonder, found on the streets where stray cows eat trash and shit everywhere.
I’m going to back up just a little here and fill you in on the basics. Varanasi is one of the oldest continually habited cities in the world. Some people say that it’s been lived in for more than 3,000 years straight, or since 1,000BC. That’s since the time Ancient Greece collapsed. Rome wasn’t even around yet (founded in 753BC.) And people have been in Varanasi ever since! No dark ages, no abandoning the place for 500 years like what happened to Rome. Varanasi has been going and going and going.
So what’s the fascination? Well, it’s considered the most sacred place in the world for Hindus (of which there are a lot.. a billion Hindus worldwide.) The holy Ganges River flows right through town. Pilgrims come here by the millions. Many come here to die. They burn their dead right on the banks of the river for everyone to see. I’ve never seen a burning body until visiting this place. And they’ve been burning the dead continuously for over 3,000 years. The cremation fires have literally been on fire nonstop for 3,000 fucking years! It’s insane. Death is so prevalent here… it’s not something that’s shied away from. It’s embraced. And life is embraced as well… there are celebrations everyday, especially in the early morning when thousands gather on the banks of ‘Mother Ganges’ to cleanse in the river’s waters. They are purifying themselves in the river’s holiness.
If Katie or I even touched this river we would probably have gotten hepatitis, so we rode boats instead.
If you’ve never experienced a public cremation before, let me break it down for you… Bodies are paraded through town by the deceased’s family and brought to the cremation site. The gentleman who orchestrates the cremations knows the exact weight of the wood required to completely incinerate a body. He builds a lumber pile, places the body on top, performs a final ceremony, and lights it up. Bodies take about 2 hours to burn, during which the family watches, chats amongst themselves, smokes cigarettes, etc. and the cremation-master-of-ceremony-guy (let’s just call him the Undertaker, cause that’s basically what he is) pokes the body with a stick much like you would poke a rib eye steak on your grill to make sure its cooking correctly. Let me repeat that… HE POKES THE BURNING BODY WITH A FUCKING STICK TO MAKE SURE ITS COOKING WELL. You know what, that metaphor was insensitive. Indians don’t eat rib eye steak because they don’t kill cows because cows are the Mothers of India, and therefore sacred. Let me correct myself… the Undertaker pokes the body with a stick much like you would poke some chicken breasts on the grill. Ok, that metaphor feels better.
When the body has completely turned to ash, that’s the end until a new body arrives via parade and is burned in the same place. And at any given time, there are about 5 to 10 bodies burning in the same area. About 300 bodies are burned on the river banks each day. And it’s all done with an exactness that comes with 3,000 years of practice.
Personal aside here — Katie and I got choked up the first time we came across the burning bodies. We were casually strolling around town the day we arrived and suddenly found ourselves amongst the cremation grounds on the river banks. Our mood got somber real quick. The Undertaker had just built the lumber pile and placed an old dead woman on top. To see her lying there peacefully, her legs straight and stiff, her closed eyes with flowers on top, her skin worn and dry, just lying there super dead on her pile of lumber ready to burn…. that was intense.
We had to take a seat and just reflect for a minute. Thought about life and death and all that shit. Thought about how death was so normal here, so common. There were dead bodies and the ash from burnt bodies everywhere. The Undertaker was basically covered in dead body ash, much like a coal miner covered in coal. Goats were hanging near the burning bodies eating trash (there was still trash everywhere… just cause this site is sacred doesn’t mean there’s a trash cleanup crew.)
It was a lot to take in and absorb. I thought about how we rarely embrace death in the West, it’s something we shy away from and don’t want to discuss, like it’s gross or dirty or bad dinner conversation. But aside from being born (and paying taxes) it’s the one thing we ALL have in common. And here, amongst burning bodies and those waiting to be burned, everyone watched and hung out and smoked cigarettes and laughed and chatted and just acted like everything was normal. Because this was normal for them. Death is a normal part of everyday life. They see these burning bodies and know that one day that will be them. And to die here in Varanasi, that’s an honor. In a way, I’m sure they look forward to their eventual death, because it will ultimately mean releasing their soul from the cycle of life and death and nirvana to its place of final liberation.
As we sat there thinking about all of this, the Undertaker lit the fire under the old dead woman, and we watched her burn. We were about 15 feet away from her body and the heat was very intense. It felt as if her soul was being released through the heat of her flames, heat we could feel kissing our cheeks. She was touching us, as she was touching all life on Earth one final time before saying goodbye forever. After she burned, we stood up and went looking for a convenient store cause I was really thirsty (I was in the mood for a Fanta or maybe even a Sprite. I ultimately got a Fanta it actually has less sugar than Sprite. Most people don’t know that.)
Long story short, watching dead bodies burn can be heavy. And I don’t have any photos of it. So I could have just made all that shit up. Don’t worry, I didn’t make it up. But seriously, no photos. It’s really disrespectful to take them and honestly I wasn’t exactly feeling like pulling out the camera and asking everyone to smile and say ‘cheese.’
So that’s it. Varanasty. It’s life and death and noise and shit and purity and filth and love and anguish and beauty and nirvana. And above all, a place that will absolutely make an impression. It’s unlike any other city in the world. Well, unlike any other city in this world.