Living and dying in Varanasi

The fog is lying over the Ganges River. The sun must have been already over the horizon but is still fighting with the fog instead. Finally the sun appears as a red bloody ball. A man squats at the river shore and it seems that he is watching the sunrise. But his main business is to do his business which I realize when he stood up to clean his bud with river water. His family is only a few steps away from him and is watching him.

I am in Varanasi now. Varanasi (also Benares) is one of the oldest constantly habituated cities of the world. It is about 7 in the morning and I just started my morning walk. Several stairs which are called “Ghats” are leading the habitants and visitors to the holy river. The place where I stay is only a few steps away from the first of the main Ghats of the city, the Assi Ghat. From here down the river bank are several Ghats, all with a special meaning. It is nice to walk along these spiritual places and that is what I want to do this morning.

Vieles ist heilig in Indien. Anscheinend auch der Papierkorb :)
A lot of things are holy in India. Even the bin 😉

On my way to the Assi Ghat I realize that today the river banks are more crowded than before. The Ghats are full of people who want to take a sin cleaning bath in the Ganges. An old man yells suddenly “boat, boat”. It was not my plan to rent a boat but somehow I thought it might be a good idea. And after I negotiated a fair price I found myself sitting vis-à-vis of the boat man. We are floating slowly down the river and through the fog while the paddles diving in a quiet rhythm into the water.  The hands of the man are strongly holding the paddles. I can see between his pants and his socks his old brown leathery skin. His face is characterized by many boat journeys on this holy river.

Mein Kapitän
My captain

“Today is a very special day. Sun, earth and moon are in one line over the Ganga. We are celebrating for this event every year the Kumba Mela” explains the old man who also tells his name: Puja. “Every human kind did something good and something bad in his life. After a Hindu had a bath in the holy Ganga all the bad thing will be forgiven” said Puja while he is paddling. “Especially for this day are coming a lot of pilgrims from all over India to clean their body from the sins.” And he is right. The Ghats are now packed with pilgrims. They don’t care about the cold and extremely polluted water and dive with their whole body into the water. They laugh, they talk, they pray. I already got cold feeds from sitting in the boat – it must be ice cold in the water. I am astonished by the spectacle which is happening in front of me like in a movie.

Die Menschen am Assi-Ghat versuchen so schnell wie möglich an den Fluss zu kommen
The people at Assi-Ghat try to get as near as possible to the river


Alte Paläste stehen am Ufer und zeugen von einer prachtvollen Vergangenheit
I could see old palaces – witness of a wealthy past


Für uns Europäer ein grenzwertiger Anblick. Für die Hindus ein bedeutendes Symbol
We Europeans have to get used to that. For the Hindus an important symbol


Früh ist schon einiges los
In the morning the river is already full

Eventually we are passing the first burning Ghat. “It is the biggest wish of a believing Hindu to get burned in Varanasi after their soul left the body. After the cremation the ash is scattered in the river. At this Ghat a cremation costs about 2.000 rupees (ca. 30$). It takes about three hours into the body is completely burned. But it can be done faster too” he is pointing at a big chimney next to the burning Ghat. “Here the body is burned after some minutes and it is cheaper too!”

In this city the death is a constant part of the daily life. I have to get used to this fact. I just saw the burning Ghat from a safe distance. But this should change soon.

It is a very comfortable boat journey. The current of the river is very low and I almost don’t realize that we are floating at all. Finally the sun won the fight against the fog and is putting the buildings at the river side in a soft morning red. I am sitting dreamy in the boat and look towards this magic city.

It is the festival of kites now for two days. I can already spot the first kites in the sky. It is mainly done by men. The kite string is strongly held by young boys or old men everywhere in town. The face is towards the sky. “How many kites do you want to tear down today?” yells the laughing Puja towards one of his colleagues. He manages to navigate his boat and his kite at the same time. “The aim is to cut the string of another kite in the air. Another one collects then the kite as a trophy. But here everything is fun. There are not real competitions.” Later that night I was standing at the rooftop terrace of a restaurant watching hundreds of kites in the last sun rays of the days together with laud music from huge speakers which somebody brought up to their rooftop.

Das Drachenfestival
The festival of kites


Ein beeindruckender Moment
A breathtaking moment

Auch an den Ghats werden die Drachen steigen gelassen
Even at the Ghats they let their kite going in the air

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Mathias Written by:


  1. Maria Prechtl
    15. February 2017

    In Gedanken war ich grad bei Dir, so richtig im überwältigenden Varanasi samt Gedränge, Getöns, Gestank…
    Danke für Bilder und Berichte

  2. Maria Prechtl
    20. February 2017

    Hallo, hallo, lieber Mathias, danke für so echt nachzuspülende Situationsschilderungen, prima!

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