Varanasi cityscape on the west bank of the Ganges River.

The late afternoon sun cast shadows on Varanasi’s faded buildings. My college-aged son and I approached the Manikarnika Ghat, a holy cremation ground with bleacher-like steps leading to the west bank of the Ganges River. He stopped, but I walked ahead.

“How would you like it if a stranger…” His voice trailed off.
“They don’t seem to mind,” I replied.
“Don’t take pictures,” he called to me. It sounded strange, him telling me what not to do. I moved closer.

I felt the heat and smelled the smoke from the mango wood burning. A small group of men stood around a body wrapped in an orange shroud on the riverbank. The women moved away and would not return. The wrapped body was submerged in the river and then put on the bank to dry. It would be hours before the body was placed in the funeral pyre and hours after that before it turned to ashes. The men waited.

Sunrise blessings ceremony at the Ganges.

Varanasi is an ancient city in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh. It’s where the bereaved and devoted hope for eternal blessings at the Ganges River, regarded by Hindus as the embodiment of the goddess, Ganga. She holds the powers of the three most revered Hindu deities – Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver), and Shiva (destroyer, purifier). To drink or bathe in her water is to purify. To die and have your ashes scattered here ends the cycle of reincarnation, assuring the deceased’s entry to moksha (unlimited being).

Hundreds of people are publicly cremated in Varanasi daily. Funeral pyres burn 24 hours a day, every day. In his book, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Tahir Shah writes: “Enlightenment, and the death which comes before it, is the primary business of Varanasi.”

Not far from the funeral pyres, people were bathing and washing laundry in the river. Male bathers were in their skivvies. Women remained fully dressed. The Ganges is known to be one of the dirtiest waterways in the world but that didn’t seem to matter.

People gathered at the ghats along the Ganges River in Varanasi.

Beyond Varanasi’s fire and water façade are lively markets, temples, palaces, and restaurants. When we mounted a bicycle rickshaw with a seat the size of a skateboard, I knew our visit to Varanasi would be a fond memory between my son and I. My stiff posture on the seat signaled to him a nervous reaction. “Relax, mom,” he said. From the rickshaw we watched people balance large baskets of vegetables on their heads in the crowded streets. Packs of candy dangled from cramped stalls. The docile eyes of stray cows, goats, and dogs met ours.

The heavy inland air mixed with dust and smoke made it hard to breathe until we stepped inside the silk shops at Godalia Square. The proprietor at Ganga Handloom welcomed us with a warm smile and outstretched hand. “Chai, water, tea?” he asked. Because it would be bottled, we requested water. He was wearing a gray shirt and gray pants. Behind his drab self was a beautiful turquoise and purple silk blanket hanging from a rod. On the shelves were scarves, handloom saris, and bolts of silk in a menagerie of colors – red, tangerine, sea green, and gold. I wondered what India would be without these bright silks splashing color against the somewhat dreary towns and dusty roads.

Men seated in a devoted posture on the bank of the Ganges River in Varanasi.

“Let me show you the only way to tell real silk from synthetic,” the proprietor said. He pulled a cigarette lighter from his pocket. He positioned the small flame under loose threads on a patch of silk fabric and burned it.
“See? It burns. It smells like human hair. Smell it.”
We did.
“That’s the way you tell if it’s real silk,” he said.
We decided to purchase two cashmere scarves we could use as face masks to help protect our lungs from the air.

We were staying at the Haifa Hotel which is within walking distance of many places of interest including the Harmony Book Shop and the Sparsa Spa which are lovely spots to decompress and relax.

A mix of ancient and contemporary architecture along the riverfront city of Varanasi.

The next morning before sunrise we joined a morning prayer service with others gathered at the Assi Ghat plaza. From there we boarded a wooden boat to get a riverside view of the ancient buildings. In most cities during the early morning hours, visitors watch food service trucks making deliveries to restaurants. In Varanasi, we saw men in boats piling wood for the day’s cremations.

When we returned to the plaza, we joined an outdoor yoga session. Our arms stretched up to the hazy sky in unison with others. When directed by the Yogi, we let out a primal scream, followed by a hearty laugh.

In the street, a knot of vehicles tightened to a halt. Horns were honking but none of the Indian people stilled by the congestion appeared angry or frustrated. No one was yelling or pumping their fists. The driver of a tuk-tuk shrugged his shoulders and smiled. A shop owner seeing the stopped traffic stepped in. He waved a few motorcyclists forward. A flat wooden cart holding a disabled man with floppy limbs nudged forward. The shop owner continued waving until the knot loosened and the vehicles started to move. A tour guide nearby explained the Indian temperament to me this way: “The Hindi person is always aware of Karma. Actions now affect not only this life but also one’s life in the hereafter, for generations. Even kings and Brahmans are subject to the law of Karma. If they do bad things they could return as shudra,” a caste formerly known as untouchables.

As we started walking, I bumped into a tourist who had stopped on the street to clean his shoes. “Why bring expensive shoes to India?” the guide said. “There is cow dung everywhere. When the doctor says you need to go on holiday, he is not recommending a visit to India. The best approach to India is to not have any expectations.”

The next evening my son and I attended the Ganga Aarti prayer service at Dashashwamedh Ghat. We arrived early by boat and watched other boats pack into the waterfront. Young boys skipped across the boats selling candles and brass-plated medallions. Women in saris shared smiles with us across the boat’s bow. Yellow and orange flags waved from the two waterfront stages. Umbrella-shaped lights in red, white, green, yellow, and purple hovered the stages. I expected chants but the Brahman sang sweet, melodic songs. Night surrounded us. The wind gently rocked the boats. The moon was full. I remembered singing sweet songs to my baby son when love could be off-key.

The daily Aarti prayer ceremony includes songs, incense, horns, and flaming torches.

On the stages, men danced, lit fires, burned incense, sounded horns, rang bells, and sent blessings. It was prayer as a performance. The multi-sensory experience scrambled my thoughts about religions and gods. Is it theatrics? A story? It was a moment when India filled me, changed me into someone I was not yet familiar with.

Smoke clouded the stages making the buildings look like ghosts in the night. The other boats soon disappeared but we lingered on the river trying to light candles against the wind. It’s traditional to make a wish or ask for a blessing from the goddess Ganga while placing the candle in the water.  We got our candles lit and without expectation tenderly dropped them onto the goddess’s back.

We left Varanasi before sunrise and the only sound we heard on the street was the clopping of cow hooves on the cobblestone.

Boats crowd the Ganges riverfront at the Dashashwamedh Ghat for the evening Aarti prayer ceremony.


Mary Klest is a Chicagoland writer with a focus on lifestyle, travel, and layman science. Her professional writing career spans decades in a mix of content creation and journalism.