The alarm was set for 5:00 AM this morning, which got us down to the lobby by 5:30 to meet our guide, Manoj, for the short walk through the alleys to the ghats. Our boat man, Sanjay, was waiting to welcome us on board his wooden row boat. We got seated in the right places to balance the boat properly – Dass at the back, Manoj on one side and me on the other.
Sanjay rowed us down to the end of the ghats closest to our departure point. Throughout the 2.5 hour tour, Manoj gave us a running commentary on the long history of the ghats. I can remember very little of what he told us, but I do recall a few things:
- There are 84 ghats
- The ghats are part of the Maharaja palaces
- Some of the original palaces are now hotels or homes
- Some include yoga ashrams
Life Along the Ghats
You may have heard of the funeral pyres along the Ganga. I always thought they were in the water, but that’s wrong. There are 2 burning ghats, the holy places where Hindus cremate the dead: the Harishchandra Ghat and the Manikarnika Ghat. The largest is the Manikarnika and the flames of the funeral pyres there have been burning for over 3,000 years. You see many people and activity at the burning ghats as, on average, 80 people are cremated here every day. You also see many cows and dogs wandering around. A family must buy 375 kg of wood to burn 1 body and it takes 3 hours to burn. Two parts of the body do not burn completely in the 3 hours: a man’s chest and a woman’s hips. They are taken out and (most likely) thrown into the Ganga.
The Burning Ghats
Hindus believe that if their bodies are burned here and their ashes are scattered here, they will achieve Nirvana, or liberation, and escape the cycle of birth and death. There are also 6 groups of people who are considered pure, so are not burned, including the holy men, small children and pregnant women. Lepers are not burned here either. Instead, stones are tied to the bodies, they are taken by boat out into the Ganga and dumped into the water, where they are eaten by the fish.
Varanasi is the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world and the Hindus believe that the Ganga is the holiest river in the world. In the early morning the ghats are teaming with activity. This week and weekend are particularly busy because India is celebrating the annual Diwali Festival (of lights). We were told that Diwali is bigger for them than Christmas, which they also celebrate.
Besides the funerals, thousands of people, Varanasi residents and others from all parts of India, go to the Ganga to bathe, pray, meditate, you see many people going through yoga asanas (movements), small containers with flowers and candles are burning in the water, holy men (sadhu) walk along the ghats – they live in the buildings on the ghats. It’s very colourful with the women’s sarees, flowers, the holy men’s garb, etc. Photography is allowed all along the ghats and people really don’t seem to mind having their photos taken. Many smile and wave.
People on the Ghats
As you approach the burning ghats, you’re allowed to take photographs, but when you get within 100 yards or so, you have to stop. We tied up at the Malikarnika ghat to watch the activity for a while. In the 15 minutes or so that we were there, we saw 2 bodies brought down. They’re covered with cloths: women are covered in red and men are covered in either yellow or orange. While tied up there, other boats come alongside to try to sell souvenirs – Manoj referred to them as ‘Indian Supermarkets’. Kids are there as well trying to sell you flowers and candles to put in the water.
We took many more photos during the slow ride back to where we started. At one point, Sanjay tied our boat up to a motor boat, for a faster ride back.
Manoj led us back through a different alley to the hotel. We arrived in the lobby about 8:30 and agreed to meet him again at 5:00 PM to return to the ghats for the Arati ceremony at the Dashashwamedh Ghat.
We took it easy in the room for a while, had a shower and then went to the rooftop restaurant for breakfast. They offered a small buffet with hard boiled eggs, yellow rice and peanuts, puri (type of deep fried bread), omelettes and a mix of stuff with potatoes, etc.
About 10:00 we went out for a walk along the streets and alleys near the hotel. We talked with many people along the way and took photos of some, like Saleem, the bead merchant and the barbers. The bicycle rickshaw (also known as Indian helicopters) and tuk-tuk drivers continuously stopped to ask us if we wanted a ride. It was damn hot out by this time, so we returned to the hotel for a while. I downloaded my photos from the morning and processed a few.
Before hitting the streets again about 1:00 PM, we stopped at the front desk to ask Anand for lunch recommendations. He suggested a new, clean place a short walk away, which involved retracing our steps from the morning walk and then taking a new turn.
Along the way, I stopped to get Saleem’s email address so that I could send him the photo I took of him earlier. His son was there as well and tried his best to get us to come to his silk shop. We told him no many times, but he persisted until Dass firmly told him we weren’t interested.
A Look at the People and Activity on the Streets
We found the Iba restaurant with no problem. It was cool inside and very clean. We had a light lunch with tea/coffee and ventured back out on the streets again. Just down the street from the restaurant, I got a shot of an old guy, that I’ve titled ‘The Perfect Gentlemen’. I asked him if I took take his photo, he nodded imperceptibly and I got a few shots. Being the perfect gentlemen, he didn’t ask for money. I went away wondering what he might have done for a living. I must say, for the most part, people don’t have a problem having their photo taken. In fact, we’ve often been asked to take their photo, sometimes with us, and most don’t want money.
We made our way back down to the ghats and ended up at the smaller of the 2 burning ghats, where we saw another body brought down. Of course, we weren’t allowed to take photos there. Again, lots of cows along the ghats. I haven’t mentioned it before, but, during this year’s monsoon season, the water level was higher than normal and we could see how high by the mud on the buildings. There is an unbelievable amount of mud on the steps, which is very slowly being cleaned off, only to have to turn around and do it all over again next year.
We got back to the hotel about 4:30 and, after putting our feet up for a while, once again met Manoj in the lobby and returned to the ghats for the evening Arati ceremony. Once there, Sandjay pulled his boat in close to others that were already there. Many more boats came in after us and many people walked around from one boat to another.
The ceremony involved 5 priests in training lined up on the ghats. They started with a chant for a while and then went through various actions that involved bells, candles, flowers and conch horns. There was a lot of incense, smoke and smoke involved.
The whole ceremony was about 1 hour and we were back at the hotel by about 7:00 PM. Dass was asleep by about 9:00, but I stayed awake for a while to process some photos. Tomorrow we catch a flight back to Delhi and then on to Agra and the Taj Mahal.