India is a land of extremes – poverty and wealth, calm and chaos. Probably the city that best captures these contradictions is Varanasi, India’s oldest and most holy place.
Varanasi lies on the banks on the Ganges River. It is a sacred city that Hindus believe brings salvation at death and where Indians, rich and poor, come from miles away to bid farewell to their loved ones.
The city is made up of multiple ghats, or embankments, that are nestled all along the river. Asi Ghat is the southernmost ghat and probably the calmest of all.
Farther along comes the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the main and oldest ghat of Varanasi. Here one can expect to witness a mesmerizing array of activities – lavish wedding ceremonies, meditating sadhus in ochre-colored robes, performance acts by deformed freaks of nature. Dashashwamedh is a veritable circus, full of sounds, smiles and utter chaos.
Finally one reaches the Manikarnika Ghat, the primary site for Hindu cremation. Families can be seen performing ablution rituals for their dearly departed, first dipping the body in the holy Ganges, then burning the corpse over a funeral pyre. On this highly spiritual ghat, the unmistakable smell of burning human flesh continuously wafts through the air.
A special way to view all the commotion is to cruise by small craft along the river, preferably early in the morning when the air is cool. Gliding by the various ghats, it’s possible to absorb the paradoxes of this most sacred and frenzied city.