Varanasi, India. One of the most ancient cities on earth. It’s traditions and culture is so well kept that going there is like traveling in time as well as space. It’s located by the river Ganges, which has an important role in the religion and culture.
Walking around in the city is like being in a tumble-dryer of colors, people, elephants, monkeys, rickshaws & bike-taxis. The humid air has a distinct smell of spices, incense and not so well kept water systems… The streets and buildings are ancient and it’s easy to get lost in the many, very busy, ringing alleys that all seem to eventually end up by the river.
We went out on the river with a small rowing boat. The side of the river was crowded with people who was praying, getting fed at one of the food hand-outs, washing themselves in the river or gathering around for the evening ceremony.
A little bit further down the river we came across one of the crematories along the river. It is believed that Varanasi is the best place to die and if your body is burned here and the ashes washed down the river, you are free from reincarnation and your spirit will reach a higher level of being. People carry the bodies of their dead relatives from far to reach this destination. Or, actually the men in the family. Ladies are not allowed since crying is forbidden… The fires in this place burns 24 hours per day, all year around. It’s considered a luxury to end up here, people with less money go to more crowded crematories where each fire holds more bodies or simply sink the body in the river with stones. Sick people in the very end of their lives travel here in the hope of, one way or another, get the change to unite with the river after death.
Back where we started on the river, the evening ceremony just started. This ancient hindu ritual, called Ganga Aarti, is performed by a group of young priests turned towards the river. It contains movements, fire, the smell of strong incense, blowing of conch shells and chanting. Ceremonial bells, gongs and drums makes it a full experience. The ceremony is mainly a spiritual and material appreciation act, but can be used to get at peace with any feeling the day has brought and put your life in the hands of the gods.
If I would recommend one place to go in India, it would probably be Varanasi. Just because it shows the very heart of the culture and tradition of India. This city really opened my eyes to the diversity of the culture practiced by humans. This is probably about as far as you can get from the culture I grew up in, but it still moves me. This made me realize how little we really do know about life, and at the same time that we are all alike on a deep, fundamental level. //S