Benares – In West Bengal and nowadays called Varanasi – is to Hindus what Mecca is to muslims, Jerusalem to Jews: THE holly city. The city is often referred to as “the city of temples”, “the holy city of India”, “the religious capital of India”, “the city of lights”, “the city of learning”, and “the oldest living city on earth.”
According to archeologists, it was founded 12 centuries before Christ. According to the legend, it was founded by Shiva. for some reason (too long to explain), the Ganga river was encapsulated in Shiva’s hair, which makes the river so sacred.
Over 50,000 Brahmins live in Varanasi, providing religious services to the masses.
Every evening, an offering ceremony takes place on the Gaths (the river quays), attracting 3 million Indians every year for all around the world and 200,000 foreign tourists, mainly from Japan and Sri Lanka.
Westerners are not so numerous, I guess there was more of them in the 1970′, searching for spirituality in Benares, Katmandu and pot…
All along its course, Hindus bathe in the Ganga waters, paying homage to their ancestors and to their gods by cupping the water in their hands, lifting it and letting it fall back into the river; they offer flowers and rose petals and float shallow clay dishes filled with oil and lit with wicks. On the journey back home from the Ganges, they carry small quantities of river water with them for use in rituals (Ganga jal, literally water of the Ganga). When a loved one dies, Hindus bring the ashes of the deceased person to the Ganges River.
However, the best is to die in Varanasi, as it ensures release of a person’s soul from the infernal – and otherwise never-ending – cycle of its transmigrations. Thus, many Hindus arrive here for dying. And wait for it to happen.
Then, you get cremated, and your ashes thrown in the river.
This ceremonial takes place on two different gaths, one for women, one for men.
Upstream, tons of wood are sold to the families. The richest buy sandalwood (bois de santal). Sometimes, there is not enough wood to turn the body into ashes completely, so it is not rare to find women’ hips and men’ sternums in the river…