Varanasi (or Benares ) is one of the most lively and sacred Cities of India. For its history dates back to the very roots of the Hinduism. “The city of temples”, “the religious capital of India”, “the city of lights”,” the city of learning”…are only some of the different titles given to Varanasi in order to give a hint as to what lies in the heart of Varanasi’s atmosphere and history.
Varanasi is probably, as said, “the oldest living city on planet earth”. According to legend, the city was founded by the Hindu deity Lord Shiva, several thousand years ago, thus making it one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the country.
The old city lies in the north shores of the Ganges, the sacred river of India, which is worshipped as the goddess Ganga. The whole city is built on the banks of this river with numerous Ghats (steps) leading down to the holy river. What the traveler in Varanasi notices is the significance Ganges actually has in the lifeline of millions of Indians who live along its course and depend on it for their daily needs. People literally live and die by the Ganges. The scenes you see are amazing. You can see people washing their clothes by the river, filling the steps with so many colors of cloth drying beneath the scorching sun, others trying to sell their goods and making hand massage under colorful umbrellas and tents and others bathing in the holy water with just their underwear or with all their clothes on.
And a little bit further people are making their last journey down those waters coming to Varanasi to die since it is considered the best place to die for Hindus. How much life can give and take this river! it is really astonishing if you consider that!
Actually we were lucky enough to meet one of the caste members of Dome who have been handling the cremation for ages. He explained to us the ritual of cremation in Hinduism. So, Moksha, or liberation from the cycle of life and death, is believed to be the grace of the water of the Ganges itself. As he further explained, people get liberated after having their ashes spread over the holy waters of this river. There are two burning Ghats. Harishchandra, the smaller of the two, is open for cremation of all castes and religions whereas the other, Manikarnika, is only for Hindus. Day and night, hundreds of pyres are tended and are lit with an eternal flame believed to have emanated from Lord Shiva, the patron deity of Varanasi. This is the same fire that is used to burn the bodies of the people who have passed away.
The norm is that women members of the family can’t take part in the ritual because of being too sensitive and it is believed that if somebody cries over the dead person then his/her soul will not be able to be released from the karma. The male members of the family shave their hair and wear white clothes after having had a holy bath in the river. They prepare the body of the person for the cremation wrapping it with cloth of different colors. Then they carry it into the water where they leave it for a while before they finally put it into the wood cubicle to be converted to ash…However there are a few exceptions to the people that cannot be burnt .Among those are small children, people that have been drowned or people that have been bitten by snakes because the snake is the sacred symbol of Shiva. In this case, the body is attached to heavy rocks and is being carried to the river by boat and then they are sunk to the bottom of the river.
So as you imagine it was a very strange feeling when we had a sunset boat tour that would take us to the place that the ceremony devoted to Ganga was being held the same time as hundreds of years now.
The synchronized movements of the performers, the music and the gathering of so many people made you feel such a deep spirituality that it is impossible to describe.
Later on when we lit up small candles and let them float into the river we thought that it was the most deep and personal experience we have ever lived. The experience cannot be described effectively by any travelogue…
P.S I hope I got the historical part right .For any mistakes feel free to correct me!:)