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open mind, empty stomach

travel, food, and fun

It was my first time smelling human flesh as it burned. Sorry, I always wanted to start a post that way. It really was, though, and I was surprised people were allowed to walk within 10 feet or so from the bodies as they are burned around the clock, in the place Indians go to die.

Varanasi’s history is as old as that of the subcontinent itself. It is the longest continuously inhabited place in India and one of the oldest in the world.

The sacred city’s largest draw is its continuous cremation ceremonies. Followers believe that being cremated at Varanasi’s Manikarnika Ghat allows them to achieve moksha, where they break free from the cycle of reincarnation and go to heaven. As soon as one body is no more, another instantly takes it place and a new fire is built to free the next soul.

By the time the mighty Ganges flows to this hugely important site, it’s polluted to where its water is of no use whatsoever.  Everything from agricultural runoff to human waste renders the majestic Ganges a murky mess.  The sky-high fecal content doesn’t stop locals – and the more intrepid visitors – from bathing and washing clothes in it.  This was a stark contrast to Rishikesh, where I had just come from, and the great river was clean and pristine.

If the burning flesh, beyond dirty river, and tasty food aren’t enough, Varanasi is a short distance from culturally rich Sarnath, the deer park where Buddha delivered his first message after attaining enlightenment. Sarnath is also home to an Ashoka Pillar, constructed in 250 BCE by the legendary warlord turned benevolent emperor Ashoka. You can haggle with tuk-tuk drivers and get there and back from Varanasi for a few dollars.

The food in Varanasi was really good. Varanasi has quite a few sweets and is known for its betel nut, but I preferred to explore the more savory assortment of chaat. I particularly enjoyed aloo tikki, crisp potato patties served with spicy curry and a compliment of tasty sauces.

I stumbled across a major flower market where many of the funeral flowers come from, not far from the ghats; it was colorful, vibrant, and chaotic. The salespeople were extremely friendly and must be accustomed to visitors. They actually asked me to take their photos and fought with each other to be the subject of my shots – all without asking for money.

There are a number of guesthouses along the river and prices are comparable to other places in India with a single room running around $6 per night. Boat tours are offered each morning to catch the sunrise and provide an alternative angle to view the cremations.

Varanasi’s sites, tastes, and smells make it a deeply enriching destination to take in and is on the tourist map for good reason. Be warned: barbecue will never be the same after your visit.

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