Traveling alone is never really traveling alone if you don’t want it to be. Today I shared a taxi from the train station with a funny Japanese fellow and then wandered the ghats and back alleys of Varanasi with some French travelers. So why is it that it’s so easy to know a stranger thousands of miles from home, yet so hard to know neighbors who live mere feet away?
They say that if you die in Varanasi, you achieve moksha, or freedom from the cycle of death and reincarnation. Varanasi is the end of ends. It’s like the anti-Matrix; if you die here, you die in the spiritual world as well. This is why many older Indians come here to spend the rest of their days, waiting to die.
When that day comes, their bodies are wrapped in ceremonial clothes and carried down to the Ganga for cleansing. Once purified, their body is burnt upon a carefully weighed out pile of sandalwood if their family can afford it, otherwise cheaper wood is used. To witness all this firsthand is a sight that can only exist in memory as there is no photography permitted anywhere near the burning ghat.
I think one of the French travelers said it best about the river, “The Ganga is pure, but it is not clean.” When you see dead goats floating down the river as well as dead bodies being cleansed in its purifying waters, you get an idea of how inviting the Ganges must be. Yet, thousands of people come to its shores each day to wash themselves and their clothes.
Of all the places that I visit on this trip, I will be spending the most time here. Here, there are no great feats of architecture or grand museums to visit, just a holy river and the people who believe in its purity. I don’t know if I believe in its cleansing power or what sins can be washed by its waters, but I think just being here is good for the soul.