Varanasi is the holiest of seven holy Hindu cities in India. It is where Shiva and Parvati stood when time began ticking. When I asked the family with whom I was sharing a sleeper bunk on the train from Amritsar to help me get off at the right stop, the man said, “Banaras? Next stop!” (Varanasi is also called Banaras or Kashi, the city of light). I heard “bananas“, which proved to be a pretty accurate description.
My first impression of Varanasi was through the window of a rickshaw at night, and my driver was doing his very best not to take me where I wanted to go (seriously, rickshaw drivers of India, you have ONE job!). “Oh no madam, that place is not safe. I know a better place.” Despite my protesting — which was admittedly weak after a long and cramped twenty-five hour train journey — he took me to a different guest house and we got into an argument in a dark and dank alleyway. I quickly gave up trying to impress upon him my abiding desire to get to the guest house I had originally booked into, handed him 100 rupees, and told him to get lost. It took me the better part of two hours to get to my guest house. When I finally did, I was led to my room on the uppermost floor by a man who looked like an Indian Igor. The whole floor was enclosed with black wire fencing and looked like an asylum. I woke to monkeys screaming and rattling the bars of the cage.
The central focus of the city is the ghats, a series of stairs that lead from the serpentine alleys to the unspeakably polluted Ganges river. This city is where devout Hindus go to die. The purification process — the body is washed and cremated on the steps before being returned to Mother Ganga — is meant to guide the soul into moksha, freedom from the circle of life. It is said that the soul reaches nirvana and is not reborn.
For a city of death, there is an awful lot of new life. In almost every crevice of the tangle of cobbled and shit-streaked alleyways, there are puddles of wriggling puppies. With eyes that have just barely opened, they are already dodging motorbikes and the hooves of cattle. Their mums create beds out of garbage. An otherworldly fog creeps over the river and slithers through the city most nights. Every time I leave the hostel, it feels like the beginning of a horror movie. People huddle around small fires on the edges of the streets. The level of filth is biblical. My clothes and hair smell of camp fire. Every day there are power cuts and the already grim streets are shrouded in darkness, the only light coming from the fires and the ethereal fog.
The funerals are an entirely male affair. Historically, widows were supposed to jump onto the burning pyre after their husbands, but that practice is now outlawed. Also, there is not to be any crying, and, as everyone knows, women are just sentient geysers of tears, and so are entirely excluded from the process.
After the last rites are performed and the body is cleansed, it is wrapped in colourful fabric, placed on a litter and carried through the twisted streets on the shoulders of male family members. Like the ubiquitous honking of horns, the warning that a body is coming through is marked by the rumbling, rhythmic chanting of the pallbearers. The pyre is lit from a central fire that has been burning since Shiva first founded the city.
A group of us from the hostel stood apart and watched, while a man with cloudy, unfocused eyes explained the rites and rituals and then tried to wheedle us out of some rupees. The running scam is to tell tourists that the wood for the pyres costs a lot, and also they need money for the nearby hospice, where people are waiting to die. I’d heard about this one before — apparently the scam artists are heroin addicts — and it’s all bullshit. I looked up some of the information he told us and it was wrong, too.
The pyres are smaller than I expected. Two or three bodies smoulder simultaneously, goats wearing jumpers huddle around the fire for warmth. A baba (holy man) wearing an orange loincloth, with ash in his dreadlocks and on his skin, tinkers with two cobras. He laughs at the foreigners’ fear and charges for photos. An all male crowd loiters; some are bathing in the river, others are on their phones. Not a tear is being shed, and aside from the general backdrop of Indian noise, it’s relatively quiet. But, then again, why should it be sad? Everyone dies, and these are the lucky ones. They’re going home.