Tourist’s guide to Varanasi in India – city of funeral pyres

Varanasi, India is one of the country’s most mysterious and controversial cities, to which many Indians come to die. However, this tradition is not associated with incredibly beautiful nature or good medicine – Indians believe that the Ganges River will save them from earthly suffering.

Varanasi in India

General information

Varanasi is one of the largest cities in northeastern India, known as the center of Brahmin scholarship. Buddhists, Hindus and Jains consider it a holy place. For them, it means as much as Rome for Catholics and Mecca for Muslims.

Varanasi covers an area of ​​1550 square meters. km, and its population is slightly less than 1.5 million people. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, and most likely the oldest in India. The name of the city comes from two rivers – Varuna and Assi, which flow into the Ganges. Also occasionally, Varanasi is referred to as Avimuktaka, Brahma Vardha, Sudarshan and Ramya.

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Interestingly, Varanasi is one of the most important educational centers of India. So, here is the only university in the country where instruction is in Tibetan. This is the Central University of Tibetological Studies, founded under Jawaharlal Nehru.

Embankment in Varanasi

The largest cities closest to Varanasi are: Kanpur (370 km), Patna (300 km), Lucknow (290 km). Calcutta is 670 km and New Delhi is 820 km. Interestingly, Varanasi is located almost on the border (by Indian standards). The border with Nepal is 410 km, Bangladesh is 750 km, and the Tibet Autonomous Region is 910 km.

Historical reference

Since Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, its history is very vibrant and complex. According to one ancient legend, on the site of a modern city, the god Shiva founded a settlement, making it one of the religious centers of Eurasia.

The first accurate information about the settlement dates back to 3000 BC. – He is mentioned in several Hindu scriptures as an industrial center. Historians say that silk, cotton, muslin were grown and processed here. They also made perfumes and sculptures. In the first millennium BC e. Varanasi was visited by several travelers who wrote about the city as a “religious, scientific and artistic center” of the Hindustan Peninsula.

In the first third of the 18th century, Varanasi became the capital of the kingdom of Kashi, thanks to which the city began to develop much faster than neighboring settlements. For example, one of the first forts in India and a number of palaces and park complexes were built here.

The year 1857 is considered tragic for Varanasi – the sepoys revolted, and the British, wanting to stop the crowd, killed many local residents. As a result, a significant part of the city’s population died.

Red Temple in Varanasi

At the end of the XIX century, the city became a pilgrimage site for hundreds of thousands of believers – people come here from all over Asia to take part in local festivities and visit temples. Many rich people come to Varanasi to die in the “holy land”. This leads to the fact that around the Ganges, fires burn day and night, in which dozens of corpses are burned (this is the tradition).

In the 20th and early 21st centuries, the city is also an important religious center, which is visited by believers from all over the country and scholars who want to better study the phenomenon of this place.

Religious life

Temple in Varanasi

In Hinduism, Varanasi is considered one of the main places of worship of Shiva, because, according to legend, it was he in 5000 BC. e. created a city. It is also included in the TOP 7 major cities for Buddhists and Jains. However, Varanasi can be safely called the city of four religions, because many Muslims live here.

Among the Hindus, the pilgrimage to Varanasi is so popular because the city stands on the banks of the Ganges – the river sacred to them. From early childhood, every Hindu seeks to get here in order to perform the ritual bathing, and at the end of his life to be burned here. After all, death for a Hindu practitioner is only one of the stages of rebirth.

Since the number of pilgrims who come here in order to die is prohibitive, funeral pyres burn in the city of Varanasi day and night.

Crematorium in the open air

Not everyone can die “right” in Varanasi – in order to be burned and allowed to go along the Ganges, you need to pay a tidy sum, and many believers have been collecting money for many years to travel to the next world.

There are 84 ghats on the territory of the city – this is a kind of crematorium in which 200 to 400 bodies are burned per day. Some of them are abandoned, while others have been burning for many decades. The most famous and ancient is Manikarnika Ghat, where for several thousand years Indians have been helped to achieve the state of moksha. The procedure is as follows:

  1. Firewood is stacked in even stacks on the banks of the Ganges (they are delivered from the opposite bank of the river, and the prices are very high).
  2. Funeral pyres
  3. They make a fire and put the body of a deceased person there. This must be done no later than 6-7 hours after death. Usually the body is wrapped in white cloth and put on traditional jewelry for the caste to which the person belongs.
  4. After only one remains of a person, they are dumped into the Ganges. Many corpses do not completely burn out (if old firewood was used), and their bodies float along the river, which, however, does not bother the locals at all.

Prices in Manikarnika Ghat

As for the cost, 1 kg of firewood for a fire costs $ 1. To burn a corpse requires 400 kg, therefore, the family of the deceased pays in the region of $ 400, which is a huge sum for residents of India. Wealthy Indians often make a fire with sandalwood – 1 kg costs $ 160.

The most expensive “funeral” was at the local maharaja – his son bought sandalwood, and during the burning he threw topazes and sapphires over the fire, which later went to the crematorium workers.

As cleaners of corpses are people belonging to the lower class. They clean the crematorium and pass ash through a sieve. It may seem strange, but their main task is not to clean them at all – they must find precious stones and jewelry that relatives of the deceased cannot remove from the dead themselves. After all the valuables are put up for sale.

Crematorium workers with a corpse

It is important for tourists to know that taking pictures of bonfires will not work for free – “believers” will immediately run up to you and say that this is a sacred place. Nevertheless, if you pay money, then you can do it without problems. The only question is the price. So, crematorium workers always ask who you are, who you work with, etc. The price they ask will depend on this.

To save money, it is best to introduce yourself as a student – for the week of shooting you will need to pay about $ 200. After payment you will be given a piece of paper, which will need to be shown if necessary. The highest prices are set for journalists – one shooting day can cost more than $ 2,000.

Types of crematoria

In Hinduism, as in Christianity, it is customary to separately bury suicides and people who have died their own death. In Varanasi there is even a special crematorium for those who passed away of their own free will.

In addition to the “elite” crematoria, the city has an electric crematorium, where those who did not manage to accumulate enough money are burned. Also, there are cases when for a person from a poor family all over the coast they collect the remains of firewood from already burnt out bonfires. The corpses of such people do not burn out completely, and their skeletons are lowered into the Ganges.

For such cases, there are corpse cleaners. They swim in a boat on the river and collect the bodies of those they have not burned. It can be children (it is forbidden to burn until 13 years old), pregnant women and patients with leprosy.

Burnt body

It is interesting that people who are bitten by a cobra are also not burned – locals believe that they do not die, but only temporarily are in a state of coma. Such bodies are placed in large wooden boats and sent to “meditate.” Labels with the address of their residence and name are attached to the corpses of people, because when they wake up, they can forget about their past life.

All of the above traditions are quite specific, and a number of Indian politicians agree that it is time to stop such rituals. It is hard to believe, but only 50 years ago in India officially forbidden to burn widows – before a wife who was burning alive had to go to the bonfire with her dead husband.

Nevertheless, both local residents and tourists have great doubts about the fact that such rituals will be canceled – neither the arrival of Muslims, nor the appearance of the British on the peninsula could change the millennial traditions.

What a city looks like outside the crematorium zone

The opposite bank of the Ganges is an ordinary village in which ordinary Indians live. In the waters of the sacred river, they wash clothes, cook and love to swim (tourists, of course, should not do this). Their whole life is connected with water.

Slums in Varanasi

The modern part of the city of Varanasi in India is an abundance of narrow streets (they are called gali) and colorful houses. In the sleeping areas there are many bazaars and shops. Surprisingly, here, unlike Mumbai or Calcutta, there are not so many slums and dirt. The population density is also less.

One of the most popular places in Varanasi related to Buddhism is Sarnath. This is a huge tree, on the site of which, according to legend, the Buddha preached.

It is interesting that almost all the quarters and streets of Varanasi are named either in honor of famous religious figures, or depending on the communities that live there.

Varanasi is a city of temples, so here you will find dozens of Hindu, Muslim and Jain shrines. Worth to visit:

Golden Temple in Varanasi
  1. Kashi Viswanath or Golden Temple. It was built in honor of the god Shiva, and is considered the most important in the city. Outwardly similar to feather grasses in other large cities of India. It is important to note that this is the most protected temple in India, and it is impossible to enter it without a passport.
  2. Annapurna Temple dedicated to the goddess of the same name. According to legend, the person who visited this place will always be full.
  3. Durgacund or Monkey Temple. It stands out against other sights of Varanasi in India, because it has bright red walls.
  4. Alamgir masjid is the main mosque of the city.
  5. Stupa Dhamek – the main Buddhist shrine of the city, built on the site of the preaching of the Buddha.

Housing

Varanasi has a large selection of accommodation – only about 400 hotels, hostels and guesthouses. In fact, the city is divided into 4 main areas:

  1. The area near crematoria overlooking the Ganges River. Oddly enough, but it is this part of the city that is most in demand among tourists. A beautiful view of the river opens from here, however, for obvious reasons, there is a very specific smell, and even if you look down, the picture from the windows does not open up to the most rosy. The prices here are the highest, and if you do not want to watch day and night how people move to another world, it is better not to stop here.
  2. The “rural” part of the city on the opposite bank of the Ganges. There are literally several hotels here, however, many tourists warn that this part of Varanasi can be potentially dangerous for tourists – not all local residents treat foreigners well.
  3. Gali or the area of ​​narrow streets is the most suitable place for those who want to penetrate the atmosphere of the city, but do not want to watch the cadaverous fires. Most of the attractions are located nearby, which makes this area the most attractive for tourists. By cons include a huge number of people and a large number of dark gates.
  4. Gali in Varanasi
  5. The modern part of Varanasi is the safest. The most expensive hotels are located here, and large office centers are located nearby. Prices are above average.

A 3 * hotel for a night for two in high will cost $ 30-50. It is important to note that the rooms in most hotels are decent, and there is everything you need for a comfortable stay: spacious rooms, air conditioning, a private bathroom and all the necessary equipment in the room. Also, most hotels have cafes open.

As for the guesthouses, the prices in them are much lower. So, a night for two in the high season will cost 21-28 dollars. As a rule, the rooms here are smaller in size than in hotels. There is also no private bathroom and kitchen.

Hotel in Varanasi

Keep in mind that Varanasi is a very popular destination, and hotel rooms should be booked 2–3 months before arrival.

How to get from Delhi

Delhi and Varanasi share 820 km, which can be overcome on the following modes of transport.

Plane

This is the most comfortable option, and many tourists advise giving preference to him, because in the Indian heat, not everyone will be able to ride a regular bus or train for 10-11 hours.

Take the subway and get to the Indira Gandhi International Airport station. Next take a plane and fly to Varanasi. Travel time is 1 hour 20 minutes. The average ticket price is 28-32 euros (depending on the season and time of flight).

Air india

Several airlines fly in this direction at once: IndiGo, SpiceJet, Air India and Vistara. Their ticket prices are approximately the same, so it makes sense to go to the official websites of all airlines.

Train

You must take train number 12562 at New Delhi Station and get to the Varanasi Jn stop. Travel time is 12 hours, and the cost is only 5-6 euros. Trains run 2-3 times a day.

However, it should be borne in mind that buying a train ticket is quite difficult, because they are bought up by local residents immediately after appearing at the box office. You cannot make an online purchase. It is also worth knowing that often trains are very late or do not arrive at all, so this is not the most reliable form of transport for tourists.

Bus

Landing must be done at the New Delhi bus station and get to the Lucknow station (carrier – RedBus). There you will transfer to the bus going to Varanasi and get off at Varanasi stop (carrier – UPSRTC). Travel time – 10 hours + 7 hours. The cost is about 20 euros for two tickets. Buses run 2 times a day.

Redbus Bus

You can book a ticket and follow the schedule changes on the official website of the RedBus carrier: www.redbus.in

All prices on the page are for November 2019.

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Interesting Facts

  1. Hindus believe that if they die in the holy Varanasi, they will reach the state of moksha – higher forces will relieve them of suffering and free them from the endless cycle of life and death.
  2. If you want to take beautiful photos of the city of Varanasi, go to the embankment at 5-6 in the morning – at this time of day the smoke from the fires is still not so strong, and the light haze against the backdrop of the rising sun looks incredibly beautiful.
  3. Varanasi is known as the birthplace of “Benares silk” – this is one of the most expensive fabrics that can be found only in India. Usually sari is made from it, which can cost hundreds of dollars.
  4. Benares silk
  5. Varanasi has a humid subtropical climate and is hot at any time of the year. The most suitable months for visiting the city are December-February. At this time, the temperature does not rise above 21-22 ° C.
  6. Not only Indians come to die in Varanasi – Americans and Europeans are frequent guests.
  7. Varanasi is the birthplace of Patanjali, the man who developed Indian grammar and created Ayurveda.

Varanasi, India is one of the most unusual cities in the world, the kind of which is unlikely to be found anywhere.

Corpse burning business in Varanasi:



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