Bisected by the holiest river of Hinduism, the Ganges, Varanasi is a site of pilgrimage for devout Hindus and adventure-seeking tourists alike.
Life in a Warren of Alleys
The narrow alleys that wind around Vishwanath (the Golden Temple) are replete with life and industry. A non-Hindu cannot enter the temple, but there is plenty to distract you as the surrounding pathways team with small shops selling bangles, brass ware, silks, books, foods and the paraphernalia of worship.
Stopping to chat with a seller, one settles in for a cup of Massala chai and discussion that is half "getting to know you" and half "would you like to avail yourself of the various services that my family offer"!
The "Hard Sell"
All things considered, however, the hard sell is far less than I feared. I was pretty paranoid about India, and must remain wary, but am pleasantly surprised by the ease with which you can decline services in a good-natured away and leave with a smile on both sides. The guide book and fellow travelers had me expecting a den of vipers!
The Burning Ghat
Upon passing from this mortal coil, the Hindu must be cremated at Manikarnika Ghat (the "burning ghat") within 24 hours - fire is considered a sacred gateway to the spiritual world, and reunites the body with the five basic elements: fire, air, water, earth and spirit. Those who cannot get to Ganges in this period use a place of lesser holiness, and the ashes are then brought to be scattered in the Ganges.
Some 200 to 400 bodies are cremated at the "burning ghat" of Varanasi, each taking about 350Kg of wood - including sandalwood to help mask the scent - to burn cleanly. After this one piece of the body is set into the river and the ashes are placed in an earthenware pot which is later cracked open to disperse remains in the holy deluge.
Standing on the escarpment overlooking the pyres one is overcome by the smell of the pyres, which is not wholly free of the scent of seared flesh, the ashes that spiral upwards on the heat waves and the mid-boggling concept that is brought home by the ability to discern the outline of the human form in the inferno.
One interesting point is that cremation is not allowed for children (who are divine), pregnant women, those with skin conditions that could spread through the air, and sadhus (holy men) - the latter having their bodies weighted with stones and sent to the bottom instead.
The only shadow on this day comes from a blessing I was given by an old lady who has come to the Ganges to wait to die, to ensure she will be cremated in the sacred waters. She collects donations/offerings in exchange for her blessing, and thus hopes to collect the fee for the wood needed for her pyre.
I cannot comment on the veracity of the setup, and am loathe to pass judgment on them. However, when I sincerely offered my donation, it was refused as too small and anger flared! This was such an echo of the false Sadhus in Nepal that I left with my blessing, my money and perhaps a burden of bad karma.
But in my mind if it is a heartfelt donation - whether 50 cents or $50 - it needs to be accepted in that same spirit of kindheartedness. They said it was not enough to help, and I say it helps more to receive it than to refuse!
However, all in all, Varanasi is a good place in my book (and there are a lot of cows).