India: Immerse yourself in city of the dead that’s full of life

The humdrum lives alongside the holy in Varanasi, the oldest city in India, and where Hindus believe dying gives liberation from incarnation, writes Isabel Conway.

Plumes of smoke rise from where the burning ceremonies are beginning. 

Sunrise turns the murky river molten gold and a procession carries the body wrapped in white and yellow cloth down the steps to the river. 

He or she is given one final dip in the Holy Ganges before being placed on top of huge piles of wood and set ablaze.

For Hindus, Varanasi, India’s oldest and holiest city, is the place to die. They believe dying in Varanasi guarantees moksha, or liberation from reincarnation and a never ending cycle of birth and death.

Bodies are cremated on the Ghats (steps) that stretch into the distance framed by turreted crumbling temples and colourful shrines.

The ashes of the dead are later scattered into the Ganges where pilgrims bathe, locals do their laundry, and dogs cool off.

The humdrum lives alongside the holy but it feels perfectly natural. 

As Lonely Planet once wrote, “it could only be in India that a city where people come to die could feel so miraculously full of life”.

Hundreds of cremations following ancient rituals take place daily amid moving serene scenes of spirituality only yards from the mayhem of markets, souvenir stalls, crowded alleyways, wandering cows, orange-clad sadhus (holy men) and auto rickshaws honking and belching fumes.

Most foreign tourists view Varanasi’s historic cremation ceremonies on dawn boat tours urged to show respect and refrain from talking loudly or taking photos.

Pilgrims in Dashashwamedh Gha at the Ganges river in Varanasi. Many ghats, embankments made in steps, are placed in one of the river sides and it is where pilgrims perform ritual ablutions, and also where Hindus perform cremations.

During my walk scrambling up and down a couple of miles of Ghats, I suddenly find myself close to a cremation site and watch in fascinated horror long coils of grey hair and the corpse’s feet visibly protruding from within the pyre.

The grief of family members — the sons have shaved their heads in mourning — is intense.

Feeling an intruder, I say a silent prayer for the deceased and flee.

Some distance away, the dying lie on rows of bamboo stretchers, comforted by their families drawing their last breath on the banks of the Ganges. 

Chanted mantras, tinkling bells and a fragrance of incense mixed with cow dung, rancid oil and rotting vegetables completes this extraordinary tableau.

“Come as a Stranger, go as a friend” is the motto at “Aashray”, a charming and comfortable homestay (price from €65 double with breakfast; in the inner suburb of Varanasi. 

Owners Mr and Mrs Kapur welcome us like family friends with steaming spicy Chai tea served from their best china and delicious meals.

Men were repositioning parts of a corpse with long poles amid the flames during the cremation and others were in the water sifting through floating human ashes with sieves on the lookout for gold fillings or other valuables the mortician allows them to keep, I tell Mr Kapur.

He quotes Mark Twain’s description of Varanasi’s unbroken ancient spiritual character: “Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looking twice as old as all of them put together.”

Embarking on my own fleeting spiritual journey the same afternoon, I took a taxi through manic traffic to the renowned Garden of Spiritual Wisdom ( ) in Sarnath, a nearby town sacred to Buddhists.

Peaceful, reflective and enlightening, the exquisite seven-acre garden uses a mix of exhibits and sculptures to convey the essentials of Buddhism and Indian spirituality.

Spiritual teachings like “attachment to possessions lead us to remain unaware of the real world and self”, and “good emotional health ensures mental and physical health”, are positioned on a walkway.

Another path follows stone sculptures featuring the eight fold path to happiness and enlightenment.

Then it was time for a session with the Yogi followed by a massage treatment. Pradeep Sharma arrives with his bag of Ayurvedic oils and lengths of cloth to discreetly cover my near nakedness during the massage that follows.

First we sit cross-legged practising deep breathing and mindfulness.

“You must slow down, focus your mind on the present moment and not on your ever changing thoughts,” advises the Yogi, adding that I must also drink lots of water from a copper lined jug first thing in the morning and throughout the day to “de-toxify and cleanse the gut”.

After our breathing exercises, the yogi demonstrates stretching and focussing concentration.

Then middle-aged Pradeep Sharma, a former athlete, spends an hour massaging every bit of me (including my entire head) with Ayurvedic oils blended with medicated herbs.

He uses rhythmical strokes to calm and regulate the circulatory and nervous systems, releasing tension, leaving me miraculously reinvigorated.

A six-hour train journey away, Lucknow, the capitol of Utter Pradesh (population: 220m) is where you will find remnants of the British Raj in the ghostly ruins of the British Residency destroyed during India’s first War of Independence in 1857.

The city is a sprawling contrast of old and new, and has been described as the ‘Paris of the East’.

That may be a slight exaggeration as it plays second fiddle to Agra home of the Taj Mahal, and India’s capital Delhi, but historic Lucknow is well worthy of a visit.

During my nine-day visit, we also took a marathon road journey north to remote Dudhwa National park, home of abundant wildlife searching for India’s once extinct one-horned Rhino and rare tigers from an elephant’s back crossing rivers and marshes.

Bumping over dirt roads passing through pitifully poor villages overtaken by ramshackle trucks that constantly honked their horns, we eventually arrived at a former hunting lodge hidden away among sugar cane and banana plantations.

Now a boutique hotel, Tree of Life Jaagir Lodge ( ) could have been a Back to the Raj film set.

Yet the sunset beside its luxury aquamarine pristine swimming pool was no less spectacular than any we later saw above the teaming slums of Varanasi and Lucknow.


Why go?

India is like nowhere else on earth and deserves to be on every adventurous traveller’s bucket list. It’s all mystery, magic and mayhem – be flexible and open-minded. 

Watch the dawn rise over the Ghats of Varanasi, hunt for the elusive one-horned rhino in remote Dudhwa National Park, climb a 6,000m peak, cycle through medieval villages or discover spectacular forts and palaces like the legendary Taj Mahal. 

That and a lot more can be experienced in Uttar Pradesh just one of India’s 29 states and seven union territories.

Getting there

The speedy e-Visa (US€55) is revolutionising entry to India for visitors compared with the time-consuming old system. 

Emirates ( ) with daily departures from Dublin-Delhi via Dubai, return fares from about €600 was my chosen airline offering better legroom and inflight entertainment in economy class than competitors like British Airways and Air India.

Getting around

Independent travel is for the intrepid and young travellers. A guided package tour can add peace of mind to what can sometimes be a tricky and confusing destination. 

When travelling by rail always go first class and be patient as timetables are eccentric.

IndRail pass offers unlimited rail travel (see ) Domestic low-cost airlines like IndiGo and Spicejet help you make the most of your valuable time in India.

Top tips

India can be overwhelming. Expect to be hassled by hawkers, besieged by beggars and waylaid by scammers. 

Stay alert and mind your valuables at all times. Women travelling alone are not advised to wander lonely streets at night or hail taxis not arranged by the hotel, restaurant or tour company. The newspapers regularly carry disturbing reports of sexual assault and gang rape. 

Visitors who dream of retracing Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat Pray Love’ in search of their soul can choose beautiful hideaways, ashrams and yoga retreats offering spiritual peace. Check internet guest reviews thoroughly, from city tours to accommodation. 

Most important of all: Arrive with an open mind, ready to embrace the experience of a lifetime and India will not let you down.

Further information and 

India is so enormous you can only hope to see a fraction of the sub-continent in one visit. 

My internal travels were organised by Great Lucknow city tours and heritage walking tours and sightseeing in Varanasi

Great Lucknow city tours and heritage walking tours and sightseeing in Varanasi 

Your local travel agent can advise on the many options for guided India highlights itineraries that include flights and accommodation.

Some of the best includes Insight Vacations, Cox & Kings and Wendy Wu Tours.

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