The Burning Ghat at Varanasi

Varanasi Travel Blog

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The Varanasi waterfront.

Chris and I downed a breakfast of tea and toast, checked out of the Veranda, then rode a rickshaw toward the river seeking a room closer to the waterfront. The morning streets were already choked with ox-drawn carts, bicycles, sacred cows, and people shuffling to and from the waterfront. Ghats, those wide concrete steps leading from street level right into the Ganges, lined the town which skirted the northern bank of the river. Besides washing themselves, doing laundry, watering their work-animals, and launching their boats, Hindus used the ghats to worship the morning sun - some in chanting rituals; others, silent meditation. Darashwamed was the prominent ghat, and the city seemed to revolve around it like any major port.

 

The Varanasi waterfront bustled with hundreds of wooden boats propelled by oars.

The burning ghats.
They hauled freight, fishermen, passengers, and precious wood from distant villages for the funeral pyres. Raju led us through a narrow and winding, brick-paved alley which was scattered with cow dung to the Holy Hotel. We checked into a dark and damp second floor room  for 20 Rupees and left our back-packs. Wooden shutters, latched shut, deterred rampant monkeys and other thieves.

 

Raju was a taxi-boat operator. He rowed us downstream to one of the burning ghats where India scurried, even in death. Incense swirled and flies swarmed at the heads of brightly wrapped corpses awaiting the ritual of Hindu cremation. One body was carried to the Ganges by chanting family members, gently placed in the river's edge, then splashed by each as though being baptized. The corpse was left to saturate for three hours in the sacred river before burning.

Awaiting cremation

 

Three blustering fires were muffled by the droning prayers of mourning families. As one of the fires subsided, an elderly man pounded the smoldering logs with a long stick then flipped a charred chunk of torso back into fresh flames. A white dog prowled nearby, alternately eying the old man and the fire. 

Stout lengths of wood were placed across the chest and legs of another brightly-draped corpse laying on a neat, rectangular wood-pile fringed with straw. An old man with a shaved head, perhaps the husband, set the pyre ablaze with a torch of straw while four men watched in mournful silence, possibly the sons.

 

As Raju rowed us back to Darashwamed Ghat, he pointed out the yellow tarnish on white buildings, indicating the high-water mark from the devastating monsoons of 1978.

A Hindu cremation.
And upon returning to the Holy Hotel, we discovered two hallowed cows munching from a pile of straw in the lobby. The place had taken on the odor of a barn. But Chris and I were neither interested nor flustered. Our minds had been numbed and forever etched by the strange rites that we had witnessed at the burning ghat. Approaching a month into our trip, we finally realized that we were in a different world far, far from home. We didn't speak much that evening.

 

jhwelsch says:
Wow, what a great account! I feel as if I was there and wish I had been.
Posted on: Jul 03, 2009
vvicy1 says:
That really brought back a lot of memories for me, especially where you said you were quiet that night after seeing the burning ghats, I felt exactly like that! Itis a place I wanted to leave, but want to go back to......
Posted on: Jan 04, 2008
pyrofirefairy says:
wow..amazing pics!
Posted on: Aug 13, 2007
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The Varanasi waterfront.
The Varanasi waterfront.
The burning ghats.
The burning ghats.
Awaiting cremation
Awaiting cremation
A Hindu cremation.
A Hindu cremation.
Varanasi
photo by: rotorhead85