Sunrise at the Ganges River, Varanasi, India. 

Dates: 12/22 - 12/24
Getting in: Bus from Pokhara (Nepal) to crossing at Sunauli. Then, bus from Gorakhpur (Indian side of border to Varanasi. I experience a total of approx. 16 hours of delays this trip, causing me to have to spend a  night in Sunauli since I missed my Gorakhpur-Varanasi train.  It was a very trying couple days of traveling...

Varanasi is not for the faint-hearted. The infamous Varanasian touts scour the ghats with preternatural persistence in attempting to sell their wares or services. A maze of thread-thin alleyways studded with hundreds of Hindu temples pad the area between the ghats and the rest of Varanasi, a bustling, noisy, typically Indian city with cows vying with the tuk-tuks, rickshaws, and automobiles for space on the dusty streets. When they find their ways to the ghats, visitors must be prepared to witness the display of burning bodies on public pyres. Those who try escape by hiring a boat to take them down the Ganges, will be confronted by carcasses and corpses floating among the debris. Those who make it as far as the opposite bank will encounter members of the notorious clan of Aghori Sandhus who drag corpses from the river to engage in ritual cannibalism and other ghastly rituals. Indeed, Varanasi is full-on—India level 10. As Lonely Planet succinctly states: “Varanasi takes no prisoners.”

The busy backstreets of Varanasi, India. 

Archeological evidence puts the earliest settlements in the vicinity of Varanasi at 2000 BCE—making it the oldest known continually habited city.  But according to legend, Lord Vishnu founded Varanasi at time unknown.  Regardless of what carbon dating may say, the experience of Varanasi is surely that of a city that could only have supernatural origins, old as mythology itself. It’s a place like no other. A place bulging at the seams with culture-eternal, where history lives—ancient practices unhindered by globalization—threatening to tear the very fabric of time apart. 

As it were, Hindus believe that those who die in Varanasi exit time altogether by achieving moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth). Around three-hundred bodies are cremated everyday along the banks of the Ganges. Manikarnika, the main burning ghat, contains no less that half a dozen burning pyres at any given time, day and night.  Around two hundred and fifty bodies are cremated each day at this ghat. Ash and leftover remains are deposited in the Ganges.  Since touching a dead body is taboo for most Hindus, this grisly task is left to the Dalit caste (or “untouchables”) whose members have been performing the chore of turning dead to dust for thousands of years. 

A member of the Dalit caste, also known as "untouchables," learning 

Hindus believe carrying out the ritual practice of cremation, known by Hindus as antyeshti, in Varanasi guarantees moksha for the deceased. Hindus from all over India sojourn to Varanasi for this purpose. Some even go to Varanasi to wait out their final days at a hospice center across the street from the burning ghat, everyday witnessing the funeral rite they believe will release them from the cycle of birth and death. Cremation is an expensive affair with 200 kg of wood being needed to burn an average sized body. Sandalwood, the most expensive type of wood, is used in limited quantities to veil the smell of burning hair.  Since the minimum cost of cremation at 4000 INR (about $60) is unfeasible for many Indians, the relatives of wealthy deceased persons and foreigners often donate money to buy wood for those not able to afford cremation.  While an electric crematorium offers a cheaper option at 400 INR ($6), many Hindus doubt that non-wood fueled cremation will guarantee moksha. In any case, the crematorium is often out of order. 

Man bathing in the Ganges. The Ganges holds immense religious and cultural significance for Hindus. Thousands of pilgrims sojourn to Varanasi each year to baptize in its hallowed waters, a practice believed to remit sins. There may actually be something to the belief that the Ganges is pure and purifying. For years, scientists have been puzzled by how the Ganges maintained oxygen levels twenty-five times more than any other river in the world, despite the colossal about of oxygen-depleting organic waste accumulated in its waters. However, recent findings reveal that Ganges has a self-purification capacity in the form of several bacteriophages (viruses that eat bacteria). Good news since the Ganges also is of practical utility for the people of Varanasi who use it for bathing, washing clothes, recreation, and disposal of waste.

Boy jumping into the Ganges.

Two boys retrieving their kite from the Ganges. 

A priest participating in a Ganga Aarti. An Aarti is a ritual of Hindu worship usually performed at the end of a Pūjā — a prayer ceremony honoring Hindu deities or celebrating an event. During the ceremony, participants release oblations — usually in the form ghee soaked wicks — into the fire and chant devotional hymns.

A sādhu is a Hindu ascetic commonly called baba (meaning elder such as father, grandfather or uncle) or “baba-ji” (with a suffix for added endearment) by common people. They are essentially homeless and usually nomadic. Becoming a sādhu involves a guru deciding that a sisya (the person desiring to become a sādhu) ready to take sannyasa, the life state of renunciation in which a person — usually after family life — renounces worldly and materialistic pursuits and dedicate their lives to the attainment of freedom from saṃsāra, the cycle of death and rebirth, by attaining enlightenment. Sadhus are considered dead unto themselves and are legally dead to the state of India. Most live off of the charitable contributions of lay people.

Not all bodies can be cremated at the ghats. The bodies of pregnant women, holy men, children, and suicide fatalities cannot be cremated according to Hindu religion. Islam strictly prohibits the cremation of any individual. Corpses that are not cremated are often disposed in the Ganges.  Although initially bogged down with stone, many of these corpses invariably surface. Some are pulled from the waters by the notorious Aghori Sandu who use the corpses for post-mortem rituals including ones involving cannibalism and necrophilia. The repulsive nature of these acts is exactly the point for the Aghori who believe that traditional forms of Hindu worship is obsessed with purity and delude the believer into falsely equating spiritual salvation with purity. The Aghori hold that the dichotomy between impure and pure is false, and thus see confronting death and the grotesque as a way of sublimating social externalities into the experience of diving being untouched by human-invent norms. 

As strange as it may seem, the Aghori’s philosophy actually resonates with mainstream yogic teaching in connection to samskara, a term denoting a psychological imprint or mental impression that manifests as habitual potencies or dispositions. The objective of yoga, as set forth in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (a foundational text of the science of yoga), is to remove the modifications of the mind. According to this principle, yoga practice done right can hit a reset button on the sorts of learned behaviors and psychological constructs—the samskara— that we develop over the course of our life. As it were—to repurpose a phrase of Heidegger scholar, Brad Elliott Stone—curiosity becomes the thief of wonder.  By undoing the modifications that life etches unto mind and body, yoga restores the body and the spirit to an unencumbered state of nonage. If the Aghori’s methods sound a bit too much, I’ll note that Varanasi has several yoga centers. 

Perhaps I’ve made Varanasi sound a bit daunting. But be not-afraid! It’s a unique place—a rare holdout against the forces of globalization—and should not be missed.




Excerpt From: Lonely Planet. “India Travel Guide.” iBooks.

Twain, Mark (1897). "L". Following the Equator: A journey around the world. Hartford, Connecticut, American Pub. Co. ISBN 0-404-01577-8. OCLC 577051.’s-scientifically-validated-now-Ganga-water-is-‘holy’/2016/09/24/article3628722.ece

Taimni, K. The Science of Yoga—The Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali, etc. Adyar, Chennai, India. Wheaton, IL, USA. 1961.