On my second day in Varanasi, trying to find the cremation sites…
Me: Do the cremations only happen during certain times of the day?
Local: No, ma’am. They are 24 hours burning.
The Burning Ghat, located at the far end of Varanasi, is the prime location for (dead) people watching. There’s a nearby chai shop above the steps of the bank where you can sip in the procession of bodies being carried into the water, getting stacked on the firewood, and the three hour cremation. Whether it was just another day in Varanasi or not, bodies after bodies arrived at the Burning Ghat around mid-afternoon.
As for me ending up at the cremation site, it was about an hour before that I had been up by the main road and noticed a stretcher adorned with flowers, metallic ribbon, and a body on top wrapped in white cloth. Four men carried the stretcher over their heads as they jogged down to the river bank. On the narrow streets that twisted and turned, I merely joined the flow of mourners while dodging cows, motorbikes and people.
Dusk and predawn are the times when a boat ride is ideal for seeing life (or death) unfold. It’s a wonderful way to be a witness to the rituals, the routines and the particulars of Varanasi. There are several ways to go about this, and it can be difficult to get it right the first time. Here are some Tips in Hindsight.
1. You do not need to pre-book a boat ride in advance. There are plenty of boatman ready to take you on the spot.
2. The smaller the group size, the more intimate the experience (and better photo ops).
3. At least a one hour boat ride is recommended; you can always add on more clock time when the hour is up.
4. You can get an English speaking guide (even someone with a PA system), but I quite enjoyed the silence.
5. For a group of three, we paid 70 Rs. each.
6. Though it was painful to wake up for our 5 am boat ride, it was a good way to beat the crowds.
7. Some things I saw on the morning boat ride: gorgeous sunrise, laughter yoga, locals doing laundry on the river, people repeatedly dunking themselves for ritual purposes, bathing.