A few months ago, I wrote another post called “A Day in the Life of a Nomad” (Link) that described, as you might imagine, a random day of my travels. It was written about a particular day from my trip to Moldova over the summer and at the end of that post I mentioned that I would write about more random days from my travels every now and then.
So here it goes…the second installment of this random series about random days of my traveling life.
And since I’m in India, I figured that I would write up an Indian version, describing a full day from my visit to Varanasi this week, the city that I highlighted through photos (link) in my last post…
(If you want to really understand how crazy a trip to India can be, be sure to at least read the section below with the subtitle “The Boat Ride & The Human Leg”.)
A Very Early Start
At 5:30am, my alarm went off, something that was quite surprising considering how many times I have set it incorrectly on this trip and ended up missing out on some activity, or even a train, that I had booked in advance. This time the alarm worked (or rather, my own brain worked) and even though early mornings are not my friend at all, I forced myself out of bed this time around.
I brushed my teeth, quickly threw on some clothes, including my jacket as the morning temperature was quite cool, and walked outside. And then I turned left onto the narrow lane in front of the hotel, turned right, headed down a set of huge concrete steps under a dark tunnel, turned right again and there I was, standing at the top of Rana Mahal Ghat, one of over one hundred ghats (steps that lead down to the Ganges River) in this city.
In front of me was the holy Ganges River and after descending the thirty steps of the ghat, I was standing on its banks, along with dozens of holy men, bathing Indians, laundry-men washing clothes in the river by beating each item against a rock, cows wandering around, chai sellers serving up cup after cup after cup of steaming chai and of course, no shortage of boatmen trying to attract customers for a sunrise boat ride.
I had pre-organized by boat ride with the same boatman who had taken me out on the river the day before and so I walked over to the next ghat where this man and his boat were waiting.
And that’s when my day really began…
The Boat Ride & The Human Leg
For one hour I enjoyed a slow ride close to the banks of the Ganges where I was able to get a perfect view of all the activity taking place on every ghat we passed. There were maybe one hundred or more other boats out there on the water as well, creating a beautiful scene as the sun rose above the horizon, and as the bells starting ringing at the Hindu temples and the city started to come even more alive, I was quite happy that I had actually woken up for this activity.
Once the hour ride came to an end, my boatman, Lalu, dropped me off where we had begun and after paying him 150 Rupees ($3 USD), I turned around to walk back to my hotel. And that’s when my jaw dropped and I suddenly found myself unable to move at all.
There before me were two dogs standing only a couple of meters away from the water. Not only were these dogs standing but they were also eating. The thing is, they were eating a human leg, complete from knee to toes, that had obviously washed ashore, a leg that belonged to somebody whose dead body had been dropped into the Ganges instead of being cremated. (As Varanasi is the holiest city for Hindus, many people come or are brought here specifically for cremation.)
I think I watched these dogs chew this leg for about fifteen minutes, and I even took a few photos as well, photos that I won’t display on this site. It was a disturbing and nauseating scene, yet fascinating at the same time. India, once again, despite my ten visits to this country, had managed to shock me and to challenge my beliefs about what is normal in life.
After that experience, still feeling strange and a bit ill from what I had seen, I returned to my room, my small but comfortable room with a view of the Ganges from my window, and almost immediately I fell asleep.
Lunch & An Old City Wander
Two hours later I awoke feeling better, but hungry, and so, following a water pressure-less shower, which basically involved standing under a tiny stream of hot water dripping down from the shower head, I was out the door and off to the Shiva Cafe, a small restaurant run by a group of Nepalis that serves up some of the most consistently delicious food I had found in this city.
And even though it was somewhat of a struggle to eat my late breakfast (omelet, brown bread and potatoes) due to the image of those dogs eating that leg that constantly appeared in my head, thus sucking my appetite away for a few minutes at a time, I managed to finish it all after about an hour.
Heading back outside, I began my post-meal wander which took me all over the Old City, down dozens of narrow lanes full of tiny shops selling a few basic items such as bottled water, snacks and cigarettes, full of tailors using 100-year old sewing machines, sweet stalls, Hindu shrines and temples, silk shawl sellers, juice stands, ancient crumbling homes, massive piles of trash and endless piles of cow excrement, cows walking around as if they rule the city (which they almost do), along with some guesthouses and restaurants sprinkled in the mix.
It’s a centuries old city that certainly feels centuries old.
The Burning of Bodies
Lost among the lanes as usual, I had no idea where I was most of the time and so I was quite surprised when I suddenly arrived at the far end of Manikarnika Ghat. I had thought that I was far away from the river but now I was standing next to it. And as I stood there, a man approached me while holding out his hand, which I gladly shook. He then held onto my hand quite tightly and as I tried to pull away he said, “No money. I don’t want money.” He started to massage my hand despite my efforts to get my hand back and then he showed me a piece of cloth on the ground and asked if I wanted a hand massage. I said, “That involves money, you said ‘no money’.” He just released my hand and walked away.
Turning the corner, I soon stood at the other end of Manikarnika Ghat, an area that is also known as the “Burning Ghat”. This is where cremations take place 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, with up to 200 bodies cremated per day. And all of these bodies are cremated right there in plain view, on open flames along the edge of the river.
Within seconds of my arrival, a third man came up to me and quickly started telling me about the Burning Ghat. Within three minutes, he was explaining that he worked at the ‘hospice’ located behind the ghat and that ‘most foreigners give 1000 Rupees donation so that a family can afford the wood needed for someone to be cremated’. Knowing this scam all too well, I asked the man for his work ID or some paper that showed he did indeed work at the hospice. He just looked at me for a moment and then walked away as well.
Finally left on my own, I climbed up to the balcony overlooking the cremations where I stood for an hour, just watching body after body arrive, each carried on a homemade stretcher and marched through the streets as the family members and friends chant and pray until they reach the Burning Ghat. The bodies are then placed in line until it is their turn to be burned.
I watched feet and hair burn that day, I smelled the burning flesh, I observed a head fall off a corpse and I witnessed the charred remains of one body being poked with a long stick until it turned completely to ash. There was chanting, bodies being dunked in the river, cows eating the flowers that lay upon the waiting corpses and piles of wood being carried and laid out everywhere in order to burn yet another body.
It’s quite an experience to be standing at this particular ghat, an experience that forced me to remember how we all end up the same when this life is over, as dust, unable to take any of our possessions with us. One minute we’re a body and an hour later we are ash. It’s an intense thought and when you see the process unfold before you, it’s even more powerful.
A Ceremony, Dinner & Work
Eventually I pulled myself away from Manikarnika Ghat, and after a slow walk back towards the main Dashashwamedh Ghat, I found a good spot near the water to watch the nightly puja, a Hindu ceremony in which prayers are made to the holy Ganges River. For an hour I just watched the ceremony in silence, listening to the bells ringing once again and listening to the chanting and singing, watching the bowls of colorful flowers float along the water and watching the devout make their offerings, all while realizing that Varanasi is as unique a destination as there is in this world. Here, travelers have no choice but to witness, experience and interact with such a sheer intensity of raw life, so much good and so much bad, the serene and the crazy, the awe-inspiring and the unbelievably shocking, the holy and the most unholy, the dirty and the dirtier, all crammed together into this one city.
Once the ceremony came to an end at around 8pm, my day began to wind down. I walked through the Old City over to a small restaurant that I had eaten at during my first visit to this city back in 2003 and I sat down to enjoy what turned out to be one of the best malai kofta dishes that I’ve ever tasted. I finished my meal with a chai, paid my bill and picked up a bottle of water and a Cadbury Fruit & Nut chocolate bar from a nearby shop.
And then I went back to my room where I worked on my laptop for four hours while trying to get the one hundred or so ants out of my bed.
I fell asleep at around 1am, another day in India having come to an end.
Great post there Earl! A bit disturbed about the dog eating a human leg mind you! My best mate has just recommended India to me – somewhere I haven’t yet been – sounds like a crazy place. Safe travels. Jonny
[…] stories about Hindu mythology, maharajas and ancient temples sparked my imagination but stories of dead body parts in the street, rampant flies and poverty made me think realistically. For a place as complicated, diverse and […]
Oh God, the dog bit is horrible. Do you think it happens often in this town that they don’t cremate the whole body and dogs finish human bits? I can’t imagine growing up there and seeing this as a kid.
Hey Sonia – From what I’ve learned, there are a few types of people who cannot be cremated, including pregnant women, children, sadhus (holy men), lepers and some others. And those who cannot afford the wood to cremate someone, sometimes just tie a stone to the body and drop it into the middle of the river as well. So…there are plenty of bodies in the Ganges River and I guess it’s natural for some of them to float ashore where the dogs get a hold of them.
Nice to see how your day in a life is in India! Your day wasa quite a handful though, from waking up 5:30 am to smell burning flesh in the afternoon.
Hey Jam – Yes, it was a much longer day than normal 🙂
Thank you for posting this Earl. Impermanence is a reality that especially in India and in Varanasi in particular can be really in your face. But like you said, it is a reality that we must all face one day. We do grow old, get sick and eventually die. It’s our attitudes to it all and how we face life that makes the difference between life being a heaven, hell or mundane place to live in.
Hey Matthew – You said it perfectly!
Hi Earl, this is an excellent post, wish i were there to witness what you’d seen. I will make sure i have a full day on the Ganges whenever i have the chance to come to India. Thanks for sharing! Best regards.
Hey Lien – I’m sure that you’ll want to stay much longer than a day in Varanasi…it’s an addicting place.
Its one of those posts Earl, you have managed to share with the West how burying is mixed with street commerce at that Ghat. Its hard to imagine what kinds of customs we have here in America that could shock one of those Indians. Are there things here in America, I take for granted, yet would appear perhaps shocking, repulsive or incomprehensible to a Indian foreigner. Your examination into a slice of Indian Culture is overpowering, and yet seems to be done so easily by just walking around. Unlike some other places where it seems you have to dig deeper to find what lies between the threads. Your story again reveals how rich India Customs are. No wonder you find it so fascinating there. Thanks for helping us find some of them too. Keep em coming Earl!
Hey John – That’s a very interesting question you pose and I have no idea if there is something in America that would shock someone from here. At the same time, I would imagine that the simple cleanliness and organization, especially in the bigger cities, would be quite shocking as the cities here are so chaotic and typically polluted. Your questions sure would make for an interesting study!
And yes, with India, it takes no more effort than walking out of your hotel in order to start having unforgettable experiences here. And that is definitely not the case in many other countries.
That sounds like a day full of reflection and odd beauty at the same time. My mortality is a large part of what spurs me to travel and my time during the Egyptian revolution brought me closer to seeing death than I bargained for but gave me much appreciation for my life…. Each and every post of yours on India makes me want to experience it more and more.
Hey Forest – I’m happy to hear that and think that you’ll definitely enjoy your visit to India whenever it does take place. Apart from our own mortality, India forces us to reflect upon and reevaluate endless other beliefs that we’ve held for so long and which no longer seem to be so certain.
I found the hand massage irresistible. Seriously. As if I were drugged.
Beautifully written, as always.
I just wish I could get more excited about visiting India, but I fear it’s one of the few countries I will never visit as the sheer dirt of the place just puts me off. I used to think it was me but have since had several quite hardy friends visit the country and they didn’t like it much due to seeing so much squalor and dirt. And yep, the leg would have definitely done me in 🙂
Hey Rachel – Many people do feel that way but at the same time, many feel that the rewards and undeniably intense first-hand education one receives from visiting this country makes it all worth it. And India is not all dirt…I’m in Goa right now on a spotless, beautiful beach 🙂
What an amazing description of your day. I’ll be going to India starting in February…making it to Varanasi probably towards the end of March. I can’t wait to see what surprises India has in store for me. I am so intrigued and interested, especially by the ghats. eek!
And that leg….oh my…
Hey Jessica – There shall be surprises every single day during your trip to India!
Great day of observation! This post found me while I was having my morning cereal with strawberries! Your story’s so interesting, but i did have to pause my breakfast for a while, before I finished reading!
Hey Liz – I was going to say that I hope the post didn’t ruin your breakfast. Glad to hear you only needed a break and didn’t lose your appetite altogether!
Your “day in the life” is why we travel…to see sights and have experiences that we can’t find around the corner at home. You are a true traveler of the world because you write about what you see without prejudice or preconceived notions. Thanks for sharing this with all of us who aren’t there but wish we were!
Hey Julie – Hopefully you’ll get here soon enough…and you are absolutely right in saying that travel should be about experiencing a way of life that is foreign to us as that is the only way we can learn about the world and about ourselves!
I’m glad you posted this Alexa – good piece of advice for my visit in February….as a keen photographer I can sometimes get a bit carried away trying to shoot that unforgettable image….don’t want to end up in any cremation fires myself!!
Elaine (A Geordie Up The Ganges)
What an amazing experience! People believe that dying in Varanasi and being cremated on the banks of Ganges takes them straight to God
Like I always say “The frustrating thing about India is that whatever you can say rightly about India, the opposite is also true.”
Hey Pravallika – That statement certainly seems fitting for India!
Did you have your camera out at the burning ghat? When I was there, I took a picture from afar and was threatened by a man who told me he’d get his boss and throw me into the fire if I took any more pictures.
Hey Alexa – I only took photos from very far away while on a boat on the Ganges. But the photo above was taken with my 40x zoom and my boatman said it was okay to take photos from the distance where we were.
Mention Varanasi and you have my full attention straight away. It’s an incredible place. What a fantastic post, what an interesting day. The photo at the top, lights on the Ganges and the boatman, is one of the best I’ve ever seen. I so loved reading this!
Hey Alyson – It sure is a captivating destination and I’m glad you enjoyed the read. Just reading comments like yours makes me want to turn around and head straight back there for some more!
Dogs chowing down on a human leg = WOW! What a shocker! I’ve never witnessed anything like it. That’s a visual that will surely never leave your memory bank.
Hey Mike – I think you are correct as I can’t imagine forgetting about those dogs at any point in the future!
Earl, you sure know how to put it all down in writing. You’ve probably already read my comment on your first Varanasi post. I think we shared a similar “day in the life of”. The difference was I watched the burning Ghat at about 10:00 at night. I stood in the shadows of one of the ornate buildings adjacent the fires. I had read that they don’t like visitors taking pictures. So I very carefully tried to stay in the dark and get only one telephoto time laps shot (it was very dark). I try not to be a “naughty” traveler and respect others wishes, but I just couldn’t help myself.
Yes, I’ll say it again; for those who haven’t experienced Varanasi, You’ve got to do it!!!
Hey Steve – I did spend one evening at the burning ghats as well, right about 9.30pm I believe. I stood up there on the balcony behind the fires, just watching the scene below for a long tie. In the end, I visited the burning ghats every day during the 7 days I was in Varanasi, just felt like I had to do it.
And your last statement above is certainly very true!
That’s crazy! Fifteen minutes? I would not have lasted fifteen seconds watching dogs eat a leg!!! That was a human being! Gawd! Buddy, you have stones!!!
Hey Mary – I would have thought the same but when you see it up close, it’s hard to turn away!
Wow thats an experience that will stay with you for some time, and many readers.
Those dogs eating a human leg would be in m head for days. Argh! It must have been really shocking to see that myself.
@The Sojourner – Believe me, a week later and I still think of those dogs and the leg at least five times each day.
What an amazing tale of an amazing day!!
I’ll be visiting Varanasi in February and was not sure what to expect until I read your blog – you brought it all to life for me……..I felt like I was there with you – even feeling “yukky” when I read about the leg!
Looking forward to your next story.
Wow, what a look into life in India. I can’t wait to make it there..
Thanks for sharing.
Ah! I like the image of your content. Now, it’s somehow portraying a true Varanasi, though I would love to see some sadhu pictures. Have you ever visited Aghori Sect? there are number of Sadhus who are still ritualistic perform human flesh eating, and mediate on death body..flesh eating doesn’t imply that they are cannibals, they generally pick up the flesh from Ganges (as you saw legs) and eat it raw..
Hey Shubhajit – I did not visit their temple but I do know about the Aghoris. And I don’t have many sadhu photos as most of the one’s in Varanasi try to charge foreigners to take their photo and so I prefer not to do it.
Oh My; what a day in the life of you! Fascinating, repulsing, beautiful, celebratory, up, down and back around. I’m feeling tired just having read it! *laugh*
Great share, thanks.
Hey Maria – That description seems to fit perfectly 🙂
OMG. I would have probably fainted. Or maybe not. I would’ve probably done what you did actually. But then again, I don’t know! My emotions are very unpredictable, I usually react to things the opposite way I expect…especially when traveling.
how many days do you think are appropriate for Varanasi? seems to be a place that is too intense for a long visit. Would you agree?
– Maria Alexandra
Hey Maria – I’m not sure…this time I stayed for a week and could have easily stayed for another one. In order to get a proper feel for the place, I’d say you need at least 4-5 days and if you can spend a couple of more days there, then that would be ideal to soak up the atmosphere, see the main sights and spend plenty of time just wandering the Old City and the ghats because with every wander, you are bound to have completely different experiences!
Earl, what an amazing tale of an amazing day. I’ve just posted a blog about the Varanasi Ghats and what I expect to encounter in February, but you have just brought it all to life for me!! I felt like I was there when reading your blog – even feeling a bit yukky when reading about the “leg”.
Looking forward to your next Indian Tale.
Elaine (A Geordie Up The Ganges)
Hey Elaine – I shall look forward to hearing about your visit there in February!
I like your travel style – the way you just absorb and let whatever will happen, happen.
Hey Katie – That seems like the best way to go…to just walk outside each day and see what happens 🙂
So interesting! When I read your stories I feel like I am physically there with you…traveling vicariously from my home in North Hollywood! Thank you :).
Hey Nancy – Thank you for reading and I wish you a wonderful end of the year over there in CA!
Wow, that was an intense day! I’m quite relieved, though, that you published the awesome street corner photo with the cow instead of one of the dogs having their meal! 😉
Hey Fabian – I figured that would be the wiser of the two photos to post, although, it is tempting to put the other one up at some point!
Please put up a warning! 😉
I hate death, yet it fascinates me. So it shouldn’t surprise you that the burning of the bodies got most of my attention from this post. Wow, wow, WOW.
@Spintster – It really can be hard to turn away from watching those bodies burn. When faced with death in such a raw state, being treated as just another simple occurrence in life, it really forces you to think!
Nice description showing both sides of the coin ..This is what a real traveler see 🙂