Why is Varanasi unique

Varanasi - the city where people come to die

By Robin Hartmann | December 11, 2017, 6:10 p.m.

Varanasi is India's holiest city for Hindus - everyday life in the streets is determined by death, because every self-respecting believer comes here to wait for him. Immortality beckons as a reward.

The author and world traveler Mark Twain once said that Varanasi is “older than history, older than tradition, older than legend itself. But even if it is not really the oldest city in the world, one thing is certain: Varanasi has always been the holiest city in all of India for Hindus. In the course of its more than 2500-year existence, it has already had a few names, including Kashi and Benares, and can look back on a history that was eventful in the truest sense of the word. Devout Hindus have been making pilgrimages here from everywhere since it was founded, because according to legend, Varanasi is said to be the city of Shivas, who is one of the main Hindu deities. Today it owes its world fame to another fact: Varanasi is India's city of death.

The reason is that just about every devout Hindu tries to come here to wait to die here. Because the belief says that one can thereby free oneself from the eternal cycle of rebirths. The sacred ritual is always the same: a corpse is cremated and its ashes are then scattered in the Ganges, India's largest river, which, like the city itself, is sacred to the Hindus. The waters of the Ganges are also called Amrita, which translates as "nectar of immortality". It is believed that through this procedure one can attain eternal life and enter moksha - comparable to Buddhist nirvana.

The dead are cremated around the clock

However, the consequences for the city are less heavenly, as tens of thousands of pilgrims come to the city every day, many of them terminally ill. Relatives of the deceased who want to scatter the ashes of a loved one in the Ganges also arrive in streams. The destination of the pilgrims is one of the more than 80 ghats in the city, translated bank or pier. The name of these stone stairs derives from their location right on the river, and one of the most famous of these ghats is called Manikarnika - this is where many of the Varanasi dead are cremated. The fires burn day and night, but it is not a place of horror, but of peace: For the Hindus, the ritual means destruction and new creation, as it were.

The Ganges is one of the dirtiest bodies of water in the world, not only because of the ash-scattering procedure, of course. In addition, deceased Hindu children or priests are never cremated for reasons of faith - instead, their corpses are sunk in the river, weighed down with a weight. You can read horror stories of corpses flushed to the surface in almost every travelogue about Varanasi. The Indian environmental organization "Clean Ganga" has calculated that the Ganges near Varanasi has a drastically increased value for E. coli bacteria - tens of thousands of times as high as in other bodies of water.

Bathing in one of the dirtiest waters in the world

Nevertheless, the devout Hindus are not afraid to bathe in Mata Ganga (Mother Ganges), because ritual ablutions are an integral part of the ritual of almost every visitor to Varanasi. Most believers do this at Dasaswamedh Ghat, but on a complete pilgrimage tour of Varanasi there are five stops and baths in total. A bath in the Ganges washes away from sins, according to the Hindu belief. Originally this privilege was reserved for the maharajas only, today it is a mass phenomenon.

The procedure involves submerging the body several times in order to cleanse yourself in this way. But many people also come to the heavily polluted Ganges for very mundane reasons: to do their laundry.

The highlight of every day, however, is an evening ritual dedicated to the gods, with lots of fire, music and chants to marvel at. Those who can afford it rent a boat and experience the ceremony from the water.

It was probably this good portion of ethno-romanticism that attracted the first hippie tourists to Varanasi as early as the 1970s, and thanks to which more than a few traders do profitable business with visitors today.

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