People visit Varanasi seeking enlightenment but for many Hindus it represents the end of their life journey. Manikarnika ghat is where the bodies are burned and the ashes of the deceased are scattered on the River Ganges as part of the Hindu ritual, to ensure they are transported to the next life. That is why Varanasi is known as the city of “learning and burning”.
When we visited Varanasi we made two trips up the River Ganges, said to be the holiest river in India. The first trip we made was at night to see a havan or fire ceremony. Combined with the thick fog and smoke from the many fires burning, the atmosphere was quite eery and mystical. Before dawn we made another boat trip to witness the families coming to collect the ashes of the loved ones they had cremated the night before.
As the golden orb was rising in the east, the sky around us filled with rosy hues while the lingering soulful sounds of a flute or bansuri floated out on the Mother Ganges.
To complete this sensorial experience, I was handed a clay cup of steaming masala chai, made in the traditional manner with a sprig of sacred tulsi. I felt an awakening of body, mind and spirit.
That morning I felt a poignant connection with everything, including a sense of hope for the future and contentment with the present. Having waited a long time to come to Varanasi I now feel as if I have completed a Rite of Passage.