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Where the dead burn each night

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VARANASI, INDIA — Each night in Varanasi, flames and smoke from a hundred fires down at the riverbank of Ganges rise toward the black sky, northeastern India. Those are the fires of the dead, one of many characteristics of this part of the great country that tells you that you are in deep into the Indian culture, close to its core, should you have doubts.

There is not just one India. A giant in size, culture and population, a visitor will find a new India around every corner.

But one of them is more likely to never leave your mind once you set your foot there. Varanasi, at the banks of mighty river Ganges in northeastern India, its a feast of colors, flavors, traditions and sights.

This is a poor part of India, and the streets are chaotic. Elsewhere in the nation, like in New Delhi, the holy cows have been banned on streets to bring order in the traffic circus. But not in Varanasi.

As we venture out one evening to buy some food and a few beers, the streets are badly lit. Suddenly I bump into something. It is, it turns out, a black cow. She gives me a hurt look.

The water level in Ganges rise ten meters (30 feet) during the high season. At our visit it is at its lowest, which mean the ghats down by the river bank are visible. The real thing with Varanasi is the ghats. Indians use them for everything. You can easily sit there an hour or two and just look. People take a holy bath in the dirty river. So do the cows. Some women wash clothes, a family pass in a row boat. Indians of all kinds burn their dead relatives down at these steps, in broad daylight and in the evening as well, when multiple fires send their flames to the sky and fill the air with soot. One man prays and carry out his daily yoga, another dries his laundry, a third charms a snake blowing a flute.

The burning of the dead is not regarded lightly by the Indians. Especially the ban of taking photographs – the fires are an absolute no-photo zone. After leaving the fires, we nevertheless turn our lens in the general direction of the rising smoke and snap a picture.

As it quickly turns out, we shouldn’t have.

Within seconds, five or six angry young men have surrounded us. “Why did you do that,” they demand. “The photo will take the souls of the dead away.”

We’re unable to argue with them, and are led back towards the fires of the dead, into a dark building. I’m sure I’ll be mugged, or worse, any second. But instead, I am being blessed. The house is apparently a poorhouse, occupied by a very old and blind woman. The young men bring her out, and she blesses my soul on a little staircase. After giving a small donation, we are allowed to leave.

You are in the middle of a real-time movie in Varanasi, and the town – where you are likely to get lost again and again in the many narrow alleys – will not leave you unmoved. Once you’ve been to to this sacred place, your mind will never really leave.

Varanasi Guide

• How to get there

We found return tickets at from London to Varanasi, April 18–May 10, for £549/€656. From New York, Air India charges $1,350 for the same dates.

• To plan your trip

Varanasi is relatively close to Nepal’s southern border, so you might want to include the place in an India-Nepal tour. Be sure to check so you are able to return into India again from nepal, it’s been said that this can sometimes be a problem. There are multiple flights to Varanasi from lots of Indian cities, including of course major hubs like Kolkata and New Delhi. Another idea is to head east and check out Indias neighbor Bangladesh.

• Beware!

Though tempting, never take photos of Indians burning their deceased relatives down at the ghats. It goes against religion and you’re in lots of trouble if someone sees you.


View over river Ganges from one of many top-roof restaurants.