When I arrived in Varanasi, I was clueless. The first thing I did was walk down to the river – the fabled River Ganges, the holiest waters of India.
As a novice solo traveler, I innocently put my feet in the water, sandals and all.
“HEY!” someone yelled. I turned to see a furious Indian man who had obviously seen my type once too often. “My MOTHER!” he said, pointing to the water. I saw that the water was green and opaque with pollution, sewage and trash.
“My MOTHER!” he yelled again. His eyes bulged out of his head. I looked at him, still confused. He pointed to my shoes. “No shoes!”
I suddenly realized that I had committed a major cultural faux pas.
Stepping into the holiest river in India with shoes on is worse than farting in church – it’s more like walking up to the altar and vomiting on the priest.
All the dirt on my shoes was now in this man's most sacred water.
Supposedly, Varanasi is an ancient city where the original inhabitants were sun-worshipers, praying along the river to the sun as God. The people are Hindu now, and they call the river Ganga (pronounced "gone-ga"), Mother Ganga.
As I tried to wrap my mind around the idea of water as the mother of life and death, I found a room with a window overlooking the river.
I would soon begin to understand.
Late one night, from the window in my room, I saw a group of men standing at the water's edge. The man in the center was holding a white bundle in his arms. He was waiting for a boatman whose vessel gently eased out of the darkness.
I realized that the white bundle was the body of his dead baby, and he was about to release the little body into the Ganges.
There are six types of people whose bodies are released intact into the Ganges: Hindu holy men, pregnant women, victims of snake bite, victims of smallpox, victims of leprosy and children under two years.
The boatman took the man aboard his wooden boat. The man gently placed the bundle on the covered bow. An icon gleaming white, angelic in purity, its linen untarnished by even the slightest mark, it was prepared to be taken whole into the darkness.
When the boatman reached the center of the river filled with souls, he stopped where the current was fastest to take the body quickly into the afterlife. With the bow pointing downriver, the man took the bundle into his arms one last time and gently set it into the green-black water.
The boatman began rowing against the current, and as the boat turned back upstream to the family standing in golden lamplight, the white bundle floated away, sinking gently until the last point of white was consumed forever.
It was a beautiful funeral ceremony, particularly for the poignant elegance of a father's symbolic actions. The soul of the child escapes the cycle of reincarnation, birth and death and goes into the afterlife 100% pure.
Varanasi is a living portrait of life and death along the Ganges, where you feel the heartbeat of humanity, the pulse of life right before your eyes in vivid reality, as if you could touch the essence that makes us human. The water of life and death; the Mother Ganga. I suddenly understood.
Here are a few recommendations:
It is auspicious for a Hindu to die in Varanasi, because their soul is released from the cycle of reincarnation. Bodies are continuously cremated, and the ashes are released into the river.
Tourists are allowed to visit the burning ghats, though photography is expressly forbidden.
Sacred Fire Ceremony
Get a front-row seat for the Ganga Aarti fire ceremony, performed every night at Dashashwamedh Ghat along the river. Holy men perform the ritualized dance with accompanied songs and music.
Sunrise Boat Ride
Walk down to the river in the morning and hire a boatman for an hour. Watching the sun rise on the Ganges while Hindus start their day with absolutions along the river may be one of the most beautiful experiences of your life.
Great rooms at a reasonable price right on the river – I guarantee the sunset here will be a highlight of your adventure.
The Blue Lassi Shop
You've probably had a lassi or two at an Indian restaurant, but it's nothing like the real thing.
This little shop is popular with locals and tourists, who come back again and again for the handmade sweet yogurt drinks. They're served in terracotta pottery, which actually absorbs moisture from the yogurt and improves flavor. Unique local delicacy.