Varanasi, India – Burning Bodies on the Ganges River and Lessons Learned in The Holy City

A Little Bit About Varanasi

Varanasi is a town of 1 million+ people in the state of Uttar Pradesh dating back to the 11th century B.C.  The spiritual capital of India, the city brings religious pilgrimages to bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganges. Along its winding streets are some 2,000 temples and the God of choice in this city is undoubtedly Shiva. This city is chaotic, serene, smelly, fragrant, dirty, beautiful, full of scammers, and full of lovely and kind people. A dichotomy in and of itself, assault on all the senses, and in ways that the larger cities we experienced in India, didn't have. We feel as if Varanasi has awaken our understanding of India and it's people. We learned more in one week than we could have in months in Delhi.



Haggling With Hawkers


Arriving in Varanasi - Haggling With Taxi Drivers

The people of Varanasi are the warmest we have encountered yet. When we arrived to the Airport, we set outside to the usual barrage of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers flocking to us to get the white person fare into the city. We checked at the pre-paid taxi stand inside the airport and were given a 750 rupee price point. Shelly and I sat down and relaxed out front with our bags and within minutes there were 30 guys standing around us asking us where we were going and negotiating price. One particularly aggressive guy pipes up with 950. We laughed and shook our heads. I said to the man, "you messed up, we know this is too much." He then states, "how much then". We say 600 rupees. Everyone laughs at us and shakes their head. They offer us a tuk tuk for 500 but, no taxi.

Getting What We Want

The aggressive driver then says, "But we have to pay 100 rupees for parking". We told the driver, he really messed up because we knew the price was only 60. The prepaid guys inside let us in on the real parking price. When they threw out at 700 price, I would then point to Shelly and say "talk to the Boss". Shelly would then start to work them with price, shooting down their proposals with only a way she can deliver.

We were having a ball! Most of the drivers were making fun of the aggressive guy, and throwing out 750 rupees for a ride. Then I said, "you mean to tell me that if I held up 600 rupees right now in the air, no one would take our offer and take us into town?" Everyone said no, that it was too cheap. In less than a minute, a man comes out of the parking lot, walks straight up to the huge group of people and states.... "600 rupees." I exclaimed as I stood up and pointed, "that's my man!" .

Getting out of the Airport

Mayhem erupted and I thought for sure "my man" was about to get beat up a little. They argued with each other in Hindi, and one little tuk-tuk driver who was throwing out prices was pointing his finger at our driver and waving it with what appeared to be threats. Our driver didn't care, brushed them off with a hand motion, universal in all cultures, and brought us to his car. An amazing experience that left us nearly giddy. We headed down the long road to town at  break-neck speed, weaving in and out of traffic and cows.  The only time we slowed is when the taxi driver stopped to take a leak on the side of the road.  We wondered if he was driving this way because he needed to go?  Why else would you drive like a bat out of hell, then take 10 minutes to pee?



A View from the Baba Guest House Roof


Arriving at Our Guesthouse

Our guesthouse the Baba Guest House, was 50 steps from the Munshi Ghat which is the next Ghat up the river from the main Ghat, Dashashwamedh. We were in the thick of the action and felt as if we couldn't have picked a better place to be. The Baba Guesthouse right behind Munshi and Darbhanga Ghats, also had a 6 story rooftop area overlooking the Ganges which provided multiple enjoyable hours of sitting on the rooftop at any time of the day or night. 360 panoramic views of the river, ghats and the city. Not only did sunlight place a warm glow on the city at different times during the day, but the feeling from above and taking in the whole city, simply made it breathtakingly beautiful. It was one of those moments when you see something spectacular and the world seems to become more vibrant and rich experiencing it for the first time.



The Varanasi Ghats


The Ghats

In India, the ghats are stairways that extend from centuries old Maharaja's and King's residences on the Ganges River. The Buddha is believed to have founded Buddhism here around 528 BC when he gave his first sermon, the city dates back to as early as 1800 B.C. When you arrive to the Ghats and the many winding narrow roads that connect them to the rest of the city, you can feel the age of the city and there is something spectacular about walking the same passageways as other people have for nearly 4000 years. It is reported from people we spoke to in Varanasi, that the cremation fires at the main burning Ghat has been burning continuously for over 3000 years which they call the "eternal fire".

Enough about the history. The History is undeniable and significant however, the people here in Varanasi had affected us more than the archaic architecture or spiritual significance.



Bathing in the Ganges River


Raj and the People of Varanasi

Generally the people of Varanasi can be described as proudly religious people. Even the street hustlers... and there are MANY that hold true to tradition and religious beliefs in their daily lives, as if there couldn't be any other way. There is a 29% unemployment rate in Varanasi, yet has one of the highest literacy rate in India. Most people here speak English fairly well. The street hustlers bombarded us from the moment we got out of our taxi from the Airport. We now knew how to handle those looking to help us, thanks to Delhi. We befriended a guy named Rajesh the first night in Varanasi while walking down to the Dashashwamedh Ghat. It was late in the evening and Raj was standing around with some of his "friends" and started asking the normal questions in the regular order.

The Hook of a Hustler

We were game and anticipated the hook. The hook really never came. He mentioned he worked with boats and if we want to take one, we can come down here to this ghat and he would give us a good deal. That was it. No, "I own a shop", or "I own a boat", or "I own a tuk-tuk". He simply stood and spoke with us, telling us about the Hindu beliefs, some history of Varanasi, and after about 45 minutes, we parted ways without pressure or a feeling as if a grand inquisition was being performed, to better size up how much money he could get out of us.



Our Baba (Holy Man) Friend


Things We Learned From Rajesh

Again, we spoke with Rajesh another day when walking around. We sat for a couple of hours at a light blue tea stall steps from the Dashashwamedh Ghat, people watching and talking about everything under the sun. We took a picture with a Baba, and soaked up the culture. Some things we learned from Raj:

  1. India is a Country of Arranged Marriages: Women are married to husbands and leave the family. Men then need to marry to bring women back into the house to maintain the home while the men work. In Delhi, maybe 50% are for love and 50% are arranged. Being married completes your life and they often say, "Have wife, happy life". When asked if his family picked someone he didn't like, could he say no? He simply replied, "You don't say no".
  2. No Hurry, No Worry, No Chicken, No Curry: Not harming other living things is a way of life. Most are vegetarians and feel even chicken, excluding fish (for many) shouldn't be consumed. Their lives are in the hands of the Gods, and things come in due time.
  3. Tradition Trumps All: Hindus haven't really changed who they were through countless occupations including Britain's attempt to bring Christianity to them. They are unwavering in their beliefs and culture and a proud people. It's not uncommon for a family to have been in Varanasi for 5-10 generations. Family is everything and preserving the family unit. Work is just something you do.
  4. Karma is a Bitch: He explained Karma and that only by good karma, can we become humans after being animals for thousands of previous lives. If we perform too much bad karma, you might just come back as an animal. It's also about your deeds and actions, good and bad, that bring good and bad back to you. Hard to believe every living human in the earth have failed so many thousands of times to be here now and given an opportunity to do good karma and reach heaven.
  5. Varanasi is a Place of Hindu Ceremonies: He explains that Hindus can be married only 3 months out of the year and Hindus from all over the country come to Varanasi to get hitched. We saw numerous processions coming from the Ghats; A man in a fancy turban would lead a veiled woman with a yellow scarf tied to her veil and his clothes. He would meet her for the first time on their wedding day and search them out, tie the veil and lead her away. Many families won't see their daughter as they become part of the husband's family now. Many come to Varanasi to bathe in Ganges for health reasons and healing, blessings, special occasions, and to die. Raj said people come to Varanasi to die. There are 100's of hospitals and the only way for a Hindu to pass from reincarnation to heaven is by being dipped in the Ganges and burned here. There are only a few exceptions; babies, small children, and pregnant women. People pilgrimage from all over the country and world to be burned here in the "eternal flames".

Varanasi Chill Vibe to Hang Out

Varanasi is a great place to hang-out and simply interact. We also had more interaction with foreign travelers in Varanasi than any other place so far in India. We met a great couple named Gerald and Bobbi from Boston. Gerald is 70 and for the last 8 years they have spent their winters in India. He told us that what makes India different from the US is that they preach acceptance rather than tolerance. He was right. We tolerate and have a culture that prizes tolerance. Acceptance is completely different. Indians accept everything. They accept the fact there is trash strewn everywhere, they accept all religions, they accept animals roaming the street and generally caring for them in the way of food down to the ants. Acceptance is a way of life.



200 Year Old Spice Shop


Jason the Traveller

We also met a man named Jason. Jason has lived in India for the last 3 years. He is an Acupuncturist from California who travels much of the year and works in studios throughout India other parts of the year. Jason sat with us on a few occasions to talk for hours at a time, answering our questions, mysteries and annoyances with expert knowledge. He demystified the train system for us which was huge and instrumental in booking travel arrangements. We learned about hustlers, their psyche, and more about the Indians. We are very grateful for Jason's wisdom and suggestions and feel fortunate to have met.



The Market


Looking for Some Chicken

We walked most of the Ghats and miles of the city. One night we decided to find a tandoori and some good Indian food.  We were just sick of vegetables and the naan in Varanasi.  A tandoori is a clay oven where Naan is made. We were surprised to find the food of Varanasi bland and breads like naan to be more like tortillas. Due to the influx of foreign tourism near the ghats, the restaurants cater to an international crowd, serving foods from Israel, China, Japan, and the West. We really wanted to find a local establishment that served great food and didn't look like their cookware was last washed when the city was founded. But, no Chicken in town due to the no-eating-meat thing.  So we asked around to where we could find chicken.



The Shyamal Restaurant


A Punch In The Gut

We found such a place. Shymala Restaurant. We ordered two curries with chicken, one butter, and one tikka masala. Some naan rice and we were in heaven. The food arrived in huge portions. It was a small bucket of gravy and chicken and the naan was perfect. We gorged ourselves. It was comparable to any of the best Indian food we have had worldwide. We left the place feeling stuffed and satisfied. Our most expensive meal yet at 800 rupees ($12.00) and worth every rupee. The next morning was not as pleasant as our meal. We ate at questionable eateries, street food stalls, and makeshift restaurants in two countries now, and the most expensive meal in the nicest place was another testament to what we are learning about India. Whenever you think you are on the right track, India punches you in the gut and tells you who is boss.

Food Poisoning

We both woke up the next morning with stomach cramps, diarrhea and I had a low-grade fever. The following day we slept the entire day until about 7pm and decided to try to get out of bed and find something for our bellies. We went to a restaurant about 9:30pm and got some tomato and cashew soup. Still feeling a little down, we drank only the broth. After Eating, we went back home and slept until the next day.

We woke up around 7am the following day after sleeping the greater part of 36 hours feeling better and had a breakfast of toast and drinkable yogurt called a Lassi. Feeling as if being on a boat wouldn't make us hurl, we decided to take a boat ride down the Ganges as it was our last day in Varanasi. We tried to find Raj, and couldn't so we decided to go with another guy who had spoken to us near Munshi Ghat, when we would go out to stargaze or simply stand on the stairs to watch the world go by.



Mun - Our Rowboat Captain for Our Ganges Tour


Boat Tour of the Ganges River

Our boat driver was a young guy, his name was Mun and he rowed us down to the southern burning ghat and back. We took pictures and videos of the countless Hindu's doing their daily washing in the Ganges and saying their prayers. It after a little more than hour we decided to head back to Munshi and the Baba Guesthouse to relax. We had very little energy still, and although feeling better, didn't want to push it. We wished we had not gotten sick on our last two days in Varanasi, but the time we spent there was the best place we could have stayed to learn what we learned, when we needed to learn it.

Conclusion / Perspective

As you can see, we have awaken to India. Varanasi is a place where many famous Gurus, Saints, and religious men have started their path. We feel Varanasi has been the springboard for our own journey through India. We have finally learned enough about India to accept it rather than tolerate it. If you try to simply tolerate India, India will not tolerate you. However, if you accept India, the people, the religious beliefs and the go with the flow, India accepts you with open arms. Varanasi will always hold a place of reverence in our hearts. A place of unimaginable distractions and unparalleled kindness of its people. Namaste Varanasi, we will meet again.

We remembered to Go With The Flow and remembered the Art Of Letting It Go.  Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of this simple lesson.  We went with the flow finally and learned more about the people and history of India, Varanasi and ourselves in the process. 

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12 thoughts on “Varanasi, India – Burning Bodies on the Ganges River and Lessons Learned in The Holy City

  1. I happened to drop on to this blog accidentally. I read the contents and one thing that stood out for me was your description of the 360 degree view from your hotel overlooking the Ganga. I live in Mumbai but I was born in Varanasi and probably that’s the reason, the city keeps beckoning me back to it. The reason for commenting here is an incident which happened with me. It was a December night when I was upset with a friend of mine and I decided to walk to the Ghats to think. At the time I had just completed writing my first book (strangely it is not yet officially published, but the second one is). But as a writer I was not satisfied. The book had a good story but the soul was missing. Anyway, so here I was sitting at the ghats for hours, and it was probably well past 3a.m. in the morning when it happened. I was in deep thought about my friend and myself, when I suddenly got a jolt. Something happened; I don’t exactly know what – to this day. I looked around and I realized what I was seeing; it was right in front of my eyes.

    I looked at the ghats from extreme right to the far left. And it hit me hit me like a bolt of lightening. I was witnessing the full spectrum of life, as we Hindus believe it. On the far right was Harishchandra Ghat where the pyres were burning even at this hour, and to my left was the Manikarnika ghat which was also alit with numerous pyres. And between the two ghats, life continued like normal. People were doing their stuff at this late hour (or early if you like it). The temples were being cleaned for the 4am Pujas, the fishermen, milkmen preparing their deliveries, the early bathers were arriving as were those who come to the ghats for the sunrise, businessmen getting ready for their work – all between the two ghats where pyres were burning. It was like witnessing the cycle of death-birth-karma-death-rebirth-karma-death… and the cycle continues…
    I saw the smoke rising from the pyres, and that inspired me. I sat there for a couple of hours more – thinking. At the crack of dawn, I rose, returned to Chetganj (barely a mile away), took my bath and pulled out my laptop. I wrote a few pages at the start, and a couple at the end, and I was done. My book now had a soul, and I renamed it – NIRVANA!

    Thanks. Peace and God bless!

    1. Thank you so much Siddharth! It is great to hear of your realizations as well. Thanks for posting. Varanasi is truly and inspiring place.

  2. I stumbled upon this blog from a quora link in one of your answers. I am right now living in Varanasi, my home is not here, my college is. I am a student in IIT BHU. It’s been a year for me in the city. I read this page and felt that it is true in every sense. In my year, I have realized all these things. Slowly and steadily, I am falling in love with the Varanasi.
    Your blog is great. Keep it up, don’t stop, the way you describe a place is awesome. I liked it.

    1. Thank you Deepak! Varanasi is a great place to learn I am sure. We met a guy who was working there as a professor at the college while in Varanasi. Thanks for the kind words about the blog. We really love doing this and hope it helps people!

  3. Hello,

    I have only one thing to say to you. There are very very few people who REALLY (and completely) knows well about Indian Religious Books (ex: Ved, Puranas, Yog, etc). For foreigners like you, there’s a perfect GURU emerged in our country (perfect, may be because he speaks about Yog and Spirituality in YOUR language, so that you can understand our culture the way it actually is than getting bits and pieces from any random Indian like me). Remember, Hindu culture is so vast that no human being can ever learn all and everything in one life-time. If (really IF) you ever really want to seek what is Life/Spirit/Hinduism, please please watch “Sadhguru’s” videos in YouTube but make sure you watch at least 50 different videos of him for MY sake or whatever. He has spoken at many occasion like at Google, UN, Oxford University, some Medical College (I don’t remember the name), and spoken with thousands of people around the globe – be it Doctors, Technology Engineers, Bio-Scientists, etc.

    I would really feel very happy if you spend some time in his videos.

    Coming to your blog, it was very informative to me as you know our country is so big (and culturally diverse) that even we hardly get a chance to experience ALL of our own culture. Your writings gave me a picture of what outsiders think about us when we are in a stage between DevelopED nation & Poor nation.

    Here, I’ve to stop otherwise I will keep talking too much. Anyways, thanks for the feedback of my motherland. Please don’t forget to inform me after watching Sadhguru’s videos.

    Thank you

    Mayoor Patel
    Thiruvananthapuram, INDIA

    1. Fantastic Mayoor! I will check out Sadhguru on youtube and watch some videos. Thank you for taking time out of your busy life to write something on our blog and share some of your experience. We appreaciate you!

    2. Fantastic Mayoor! I will check out Sadhguru on youtube and watch some videos. Thank you for taking time out of your busy life to write something on our blog and share some of your experience. We appreciate you!

      1. Oh thank you Brady! But that’s not all. I bet you would change the way of perception to almost “everything” in your life after watching his speech or visiting him at his center which I forgot to tell you in my first article. Please do share your experience with me if you happen to visit him at ISHA Foundation, Coimbatore (city), Tamil Nadu (state).

        I would like to share something which I do NOT mean to cause any disrespect or offense to any religion…

        1. There is one God.
        2. Jesus is God’s son.
        3. Bible is true knowledge.
        4. Follow Jesus and Bible to find a place in Heaven.

        1. There is one God.
        2. Mohammad is God’s messenger.
        3. Quran is true knowledge.
        4. Follow Mohammad and Quran to skip going to Hell.

        1. God exists inside everything; everything exists inside God.
        2. Self awareness is true knowledge.
        3. All paths lead to God.
        4. We must give up lust of Heaven and fear of Hell to be one with God (which is called MOKSHA).

        But unfortunately, very few Indians know and actually live this way.

        Anyways, feel free to ask your doubts about anything related to India or Indians. I will answer if I know it.

        Good luck. Have fun!

  4. Hi Brady,

    Seems like you had an experience of a lifetime. I live in San Francisco, but I was born and raised in India. I have experienced food poisoning during my visit to India just like you did. By the experience that I had, and my relatives who have lived in the United States for years, I recommend you not to consume any liquid which is not purified(packaged drinking water preferred). Also, try avoiding cold food and snacks and try to eat hot or warm food and snacks. Follow this for 5-7 days and you won’t have any problems. After your body gets accustomed to the food there, you can gorge on all the delicacies.

    There is always something going on, and India is developing at a rapid pace in the past couple of years. I hope that you visit India again and have some amazing experience there.

    Have a good day!

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