Has anyone ever looked at the afterlife

Varanasi - Death on the Ganges

"Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, even older than legends, and it looks twice as old as everything put together," said Mark Twain after his trip there in 1896. How old Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges, actually is, nobody really knows. Locals speak of 5,000 years, there is evidence of a city being founded 1,500 BC.

What is certain is that Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth. For the Hindus, this city is a pilgrimage center. According to legend, this is the seat of Shiva, the god of destruction, who wears snakes as jewelry and has a penchant for hash-filled chillums. But even if cannabis-containing bhang, opium and thorn apples are among the touted goods in the bazaars, western visitors do not need any mind-altering substances here to feel like they are on another planet.

Varanasi leaves countless impressions

Over the centuries, a maze of stone buildings of various styles, large and small temples, crowded market streets and alleys has formed. The labyrinth is populated with swarms of orange-clad Hindu pilgrims, whitewashed sadhus, beggars, followers of various deities and the occasional wandering tourist. Vendors praise gold bracelets, images of saints, flower offerings and other religious accessories from holes in the walls.

Sweet chai sizzles in saucepans, oil-filled pans crackle with deep-fried pasta and sugary biscuits lie in showcases. In between, leisurely cows, scruffy strays and stubborn goats cavort. Windows and balconies are barred so that the cunning monkeys cannot steal anything behind them. The smells alternate with every sultry breeze, smokers of all kinds waft through the alleys, perfume, crispy baked goods, burnt sandalwood and delicious roasting smells alternate within a minute.

But just as often the senses encounter feces, sweat and putrefactive waste. Spiritual magic and feelings of disgust are often no arm's length apart here. You never know what to expect around the next corner: a small hidden temple or a smallpox-infested beggar. A motley florist or a dead street dog. A couple of children playing or a pile of animal intestines thrown in a corner.

Religious ablutions on the ghats

Anyone who has struggled through the small alleys to the east will find the most important station of a Hindu life: The Ganges. At the ghats - steps carved into the bank - pilgrims and believers gather to hold evening light ceremonies and bathe in the water. They spray each other, burn incense sticks and throw medicinal plants at each other.

Tourists should refrain from the millennia-old tradition, however, because the river, which has risen from the clear mountain water of the Himalayas, has become a cloudy brown river on its long way through India, in which sewage and germs cavort. Limit values ​​for pathogens are consistently exceeded here by a factor of a thousand.

Local Hindus maintain that the swimmers' beliefs are stronger than the bacteria in the water. Scientific observers, on the other hand, would rather say that the immune systems of the residents have adapted to the bacteria-infested water. But even fundamentalists admit that a period of illness after a bath in the Ganges is not uncommon, especially for pilgrims who have come from afar.

The river brings salvation after death

For devout Hindus, a visit to Varanasi is a lifelong dream - or rather, a dying dream. Because whoever takes his last breath here should find eternal peace after death. In Hinduism, as in Buddhism, death is a transition from one life to the next. Depending on how someone behaved during their lifetime, they have accumulated positive and negative karma and can be reborn as a person, animal or plant. However, this cycle of life, death and rebirth - called samsara - can be broken if someone has led a particularly pure life. Then he arrives in heaven and experiences moksha.

Hindus also believe that they can get moksha through Varanasi and the Ganges. For this they have to die in the holy city of Varanasi, which was therefore also called Kashi in earlier times, which is translated as city of light or enlightenment. Another name still in use today for Varanasi is Benares. There are hospice buildings especially for old and sick people in which they can be introduced. Those who cannot take advantage of this opportunity have to rely on their family to lead them to the light by cremation after their death.

Ash to water

Most of the cremations take place at the Manikarnika Ghat, where the world's oldest still active crematorium is located. Huge piles of firewood pile up at the entrance to the holiest of all ghats. The crematorium building is an open stone house with four ashen chimneys on the roof. Those who died in the higher castes are cremated in special metal devices on the upper floor; If the water level rises too high in the rainy season, the cremation rituals are moved to the roof of the house.

To turn a human body to ashes, it takes around 80 kilos of dry wood. The undertakers pile up the logs in a block and place the covered body on top. A few shavings come over this, which the main mourner then ignites. The embers for this come from Shiva's fire, which according to the people here has not been extinguished for 3,500 years.

Traditions difficult to understand for westerners

It takes a maximum of three hours for a body to be completely burned. Often individual bones such as the chest and hips remain, which are disposed of in the river together with the ashes under the eyes of the relatives. The mourners here, however, only consist of men. Even today, the strict caste system makes it almost impossible for widows to socialize after the death of their husband. In the past, the wives were thrown at the stake of their husbands at the same time. This tradition of widow burning is now illegal. In order to prevent the wives of the deceased from throwing themselves into the fire out of sheer desperation, women are generally prohibited from participating in the ceremony.

According to the Hindus, some groups of people do not have to go through a cremation process: children, pregnant women, victims of cobra bites (Shiva's favorite animal) and lepers are given directly to the water here after their death. So if you spot a human body drifting by on one of the popular Ganges boat tours in the river, you can assume that it has once belonged to one of these groups.

The rituals and traditions here have survived the millennia; secular visitors from the west are usually faced with a mixture of fascination and incomprehension. Many of the people here don't live much differently than they did hundreds of years ago, when the Ganges was not that dirty. Progress is still a foreign word in many areas, even if many of the fanatics seem to be connected to their smartphones even here. Will anything ever change here, in the cycle of life, suffering, death and burning on the river? Jain, the tourist guide who was born here, has hardly noticed any change since he was born: "Anyone who is in Varanasi knows what is alive", he says and he is right.