For a place with a nickname as morbid as The City of Death, I’m surprised by how much colour I can see, and curious as to why the place smells so strongly of oily smoke. And then I realise why, eyeing a long stretch of pastel steps that lead to the edge of a wide and murky river, where a stack of wood is quietly burning. Something is placed within the middle of the logs. A human body, recently deceased, and now set alight on an open pyre for all to see. There are no mourners, just silent spectators dressed in fierce shades of blue, red and yellow as vibrant as the city itself, bearing witness to the gathering embers. Well, that explains the smoke.
Varanasi is the city where one goes to die. Hindu tradition says to die in Varanasi is to end the cycle of reincarnation that each human being is entrapped in. Hindu holy men flock here from all over India to live out what they believe will be their final life in absolute simplicity, meditating along the sides of the Ganges River, paying scant heed to the need to eat and sleep; instead devoting almost all of their time and energy to silent meditation, in the hope that their soul will finally be freed.
Here, death isn’t something to be hidden. Rather, it’s a part of the fabric of everyday life. About 80 cremations take place every day along the banks of the Ganges. At sunrise, boatmen offer rides across the dark water, from where you can watch distant fires slowly light up.
As I walk down a street, my eyes are pulled in a thousand different directions — the great mesh of electricity wires that hangs above; the rhesus monkeys that peer down at me from window ledges; the vibrantly coloured walls of decaying buildings; the gap-toothed grins of children who run barefoot in a small mob; and the adults seated on the pavement who show no interest in stopping them.
I jump to one side as four men come charging down the street carrying aloft a wooden frame draped in a golden throw. A low humming emanates from beneath their beards; bells hanging from their necks clang, and they scatter marigold flowers as they go. Backed up against the wall as they pass, I spot a pair of long, bony feet poking out from the edges of the throw. As the procession disappears around a corner, it takes me a little while to gather myself, but the kids continue their play, the monkeys are still watchful, and the shopkeepers continue to ply their trade. No one here is acting like they’ve witnessed anything out of the ordinary. Only me. Realising that, I continue on my way.