Visit Varanasi, India’s healing capital, where life and death coexist in harmony

When we landed in Varanasi in early January, my intention was to assist my foodie husband check off all items on his ‘Benares Must-Eat’ list. It was our first leisure trip out of Singapore after Covid restrictions were eased, and travel buddies had hyped up the food in Benares aka Varanasi aka Kashi.

What I hadn’t intended for were philosophical discussions, least of all a spiritual awakening about death.

Fire and smoke from the cremation at Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi. Photo courtesy: Kavita Chandran Budhraja

The first epiphany arrived when we went looking for a “tiny yogurt shop” called Blue Lassi, made famous by Lonely Planet for serving “Varanasi’s freshest, creamiest, fruit-filled lassis for over 90 years”.

The famous Blue Lassi shop. Photo courtesy: Kavita Chandran Budhraja
The Singapore-based author visited Varanasi after Covid swept over the world, taking lives. This trip helped her see death differently. Photo courtesy: Kavita Chandran Budhraja

Narrow winding lanes led us to a door-less shop with benches and thousands of passport-size photos on blue walls. An old man squatted outside, diligently crushing nuts, chopping fruits and whipping up yogurt shakes for eager customers: some sat on the rickety benches, while others leaned against the walls.

What happened next chilled us to the bone. No, it wasn’t the taste of the blue lassi, which — you will be relieved to know — is not blue. It’s the corpse that passed by just when my husband ordered two delectable concoctions.

“Oh my God! Did you see that?” I cried out to the others, who were nonchalantly relishing their drink in an earthen kulhad, oblivious to the morbid chants of “Ram Naam Satya Hai (Lord Ram’s name is the truth)”.

Another corpse wrapped in a shiny orange cloth followed shortly thereafter, the body effortlessly balancing on a bamboo stretcher held tight on four corners by four young men chanting the same four words matter-of-factly.

In a span of 20 minutes, two more stretchers passed by before we received our frothy lassis garnished with pistachios and almonds. I shut my eyes (and ears) and took a sip — and forgot about life for a while — seamlessly integrating with the yogurt-loving crowd, accepting and embracing life and death as they juxtaposed in a 3,000-year-old city.

The milky malaiyo, a Varanasi speciality, is available only in the cooler months, because of a very special ingredient. Photo courtesy: Kavita Chandran Budhraja

Blue Lassi is located on a narrow lane that leads to Manikarnika Ghat, an open cremation site on the banks of the sacred river Ganga, where more than 100 bodies burn on wooden logs every day or night. A ghat is a raised platform on the sides of a river and there are 84 of them with different names along the Ganga in Varanasi.

“Why would you be scared of a dead body?” asked our auto driver in surprise when I described what I felt during a bumpy ride to Sarnath, an archaeological wonder 10km from Varanasi where the Buddha gave his first sermon.

Sarnath, the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon. Photo courtesy: Kavita Chandran Budhraja
The archaeological ruins of Sarnath are 10km from Varanasi. Photo courtesy: Kavita Chandran Budhraja

An insightful response to that profound question was provided to me later by Subba Sattvic, a meditation coach who hosts wellness retreats in his resort, Being Sattva, in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. “The mere acceptance of death is an opportunity to live your best life,” he explained. I soon gathered that was essentially a Varanasi state-of-life.

“Life is a preparation for death because that’s the only event that is guaranteed for all of us,” said Subba, who teaches “death meditation” during his retreats to help people embrace the inevitable. “The idea is to clear the decks — forgive people; let go of issues, memories or regrets; accept and not withhold.”

Faith, Food and Music

As I looked down from our terrace, I noticed a slow melodic pace to life — water, people, trees, and kites were swaying with rhythm and resilience.

Topics around cremations that happened during Covid were politely diverted. “Bahut bura samay tha, achha hai guzar gaya (It was a very bad time, good it has passed),” said our guide Rakesh Giri, who works at the BrijRama Palace, a 200-year-old structure on Darbhanga Ghat, now converted to a luxury hotel.

The glorious heritage structure BrijRama Palace. Photo courtesy: Kavita Chandran Budhraja

The aura of Varanasi appeared to be seeped in accepting situations and moving on — physically and mentally — as the sound of prayer resonated everywhere.

“Faith can be a remarkable framework to help people understand and accept the significance of mortality in how life unfolds,” said Brian Carpenter, a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, United States, when we discussed how Varanasi depicted a different environment than the usual death-coping conversations elsewhere.

Death Wellness is a whole new industry now, with an increasing demand for grief courses and counsellors. It is slowly becoming a career path as positions open up for counsellors in death cafes where people gather around to discuss the end of life “over cakes and tea” (there’s one in Singapore, too), or death doulas, bereavement therapists, and soul midwives. The aim is to provide therapy to navigate grief.

“What unfolds at Varanasi is an example of how the presence of death, being surrounded by it in the context of support and comfort, can be an incredible balm for people,” said Carpenter.

The ghats of Varanasi are places of bustling business, populated by flower sellers, palmists, and temple vendors. Photo courtesy: Kavita Chandran Budhraja

As flower sellers, palmists, and temple vendors set up their business spaces on the ghats, strains of classical music filled the air, a beautiful reminder to visitors that Varanasi is the birthplace of two world-famous music maestros: Ustad Bismillah Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar.

A classical music performance in Varanasi, the city where two of the greatest Indian maestros were born. Photo courtesy: Kavita Chandran Budhraja

We attended ‘Subah-e-Banaras’ in Assi Ghat, a musical treat at the break of dawn where trained classical singers and musicians entertain the audience as they sip hot lemon tea.

Fresh street food is a delicacy and restaurants sell out within hours of cooking their kachori-sabji and baati-chokha. Leaving Benares without devouring the milky malaiyo may be considered sinful by some. However, it’s only available between November and March as its main ingredient is — get this — cold morning dew!

Eager and hungry crowds at Kashi Chaat Bhandar. Photo courtesy: Kavita Chandran Budhraja
Delicious treats at Shri Satya Narayan Sweets. Photo courtesy: Kavita Chandran Budhraja

We were fortunately able to check off malaiyo and others from the spouse’s list: patta chaat, tamatar chaat and tikki chaat from Kashi Chaat Bhandar; kachori-sabji from The Ram Bhandar; sweets from Shri Satya Narayan Sweets; and malai-toast from Laxmi Chai Wala.

Perhaps it was the freshness of the hot street food that made it easy on the gut, too.

Calm amid Chaos

“The city of learning and burning” is how our guide described Varanasi to us, providing the first reference to the Benares Hindu University (BHU), known for its largest residential campus in Asia.

Benares, India’s oldest city with a population of 1.6 million, has transformed into a tourist destination, shedding its age-old reputation of an “unclean place where people go to die”.

Varanasi aka Kashi is home to many homeless, who benefit from the increasing number of tourists coming into the city. Photo courtesy: Kavita Chandran Budhraja

Cleaning Benares became a mission for Prime Minister Narendra Modi a few years ago, garnering him votes and a God-like status, including a ghat named after him. The NaMo Ghat is a USD720 million ongoing project that will house a modern recreational facility with walkways and ramps, and already has three large sculptures of folded hands offering salutations to the Ganga.

The main temple, Kashi Vishwanath, which used to have a dusty and congested approach, now has a 500,000 feet stone corridor for easy access. Crowds were still aplenty, so I decided to skip the claustrophobia and said a silent prayer at the gate instead.

Worshippers take a dip in the Ganga, while others spend leisurely hours by the river. Photo courtesy: Kavita Chandran Budhraja

As half-naked soapy men and women dipped in murky waters before scurrying off for worship, the homeless lined up outside temples with begging bowls, sometimes sending their children to nudge worshippers and tourists for alms. On starry nights, little children cuddled with mothers on the rocky steps leading to the temples.

Despite the overwhelming sights, smells, and sounds (the honking from vehicles can hurt your ears!), the residents of Varanasi donned compassionate eyes and perpetual smiles. “There’s a saying here that the same man who punches you will also take you to the hospital and drop you back home after the doctor stitches you up,” joked Giri.

A salesman displays the world-famous Benarasi sari. Photo courtesy: Kavita Chandran Budhraja

“Live and let live” was clearly the formula. Even salesmen on streets promoting “world-famous Benares saris” cleared the way politely when we declined their offers.

While the area around the temples is strictly occupied by Hindus, there is a large Muslim community in Varanasi, many of whom are weavers, or Ansaris, who have been hand-weaving intricate silk drapes for generations.

“Benares has an important ingredient that other cities lack and it’s called ‘anand,’” said a handloom store owner, referring to “inner happiness”, as his assistant draped himself to show me intricate handwoven designs on silk saris. I succumbed and bought two.

Uplifting Ganga Aarti 

The Benares experience can never be complete without seeing the beautiful evening ritual of Ganga Aarti. The daily prayers on the banks of the Ganga are extravagant cultural performances by young priests, who synchronise their movements while holding lit lamps.

The daily evening Ganga Aarti is one of the most uplifting experiences of Varanasi. Photo courtesy: Kavita Chandran Budhraja

Hundreds, maybe thousands, gather every evening near the Ganga Aarti spot — sitting in boats, on the ghat steps, or anywhere they can — to see this magnificent and uplifting ritual. It is a completely free experience, but voluntary donations (“daan”) are welcome.

As we returned by boat after watching the aarti on our last night, mesmerised by the reverberating sounds of the chants, we passed blazing flames, and marvelled at fire, water, flesh and soul poetically and placidly uniting as relatives bid goodbye to loved ones.