Varanasi is located in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northeastern India and is one of the oldest cities in the world.

The date of its foundation cannot be specified, but it is believed that it’s more than 3000 years old.

The writer Mark Twain said that “Varanasi is older than history itself, older than tradition and even older than the legend, and it looks like twice as old than all those combined”.

The city is considered by many believers to be the most sacred in Hinduism, as it is located on the shores of the Ganges. For the Indians, it’s just not a river, but the personification of the goddess Ganga (thus, a sacred river).

The followers of Hinduism believe that the river has the ability to cleanse accumulated sins, hence to die in Varanasi or at least be cremated and have one’s ashes thrown into the water is the highest form of purification. There’s a belief which h tells that those who die in Varanasi are freed from the reincarnation cycle. This way, one can achieve glory and reach the state of nirvana, the supreme state of wisdom.

It’s the liberation of the soul.

The traditional Hindu wishes to spend his last days in an ashram (a spiritual hermitage and a site to perform yoga and meditation) in Varanasi, chanting and repenting of his sins. At the riverbanks you can see many houses that host Hindus who have chosen to die in this city.

After his death, a Hindu wishes to be cremated, with his ashes being thrown into the Ganges river, so he can purify his sins.

In Varanasi, there are several stone steps leading down to the river, known as gaths. This is the city’s soul and in some gaths cremation ceremonies are held. There, one can sense the smell of the burning flesh and see the ashes hovering in the air… If we want, we can witness it, in silence. The widows cannot be present, since it is considered that they have more difficulties when it’s time to control their feelings.

Relatives carry the corpse, wrapped in a shroud, into the river, in which it is immersed and then removed from. When already dried, the corpse is cremated in a wooden pyre. After this process is completed, the ashes, and the remains that were not burned, are thrown into the river.

Beyond these ceremonies, the remaining gaths host other activities, such as ceremonial baths, worship rituals, or more casual activities, like dish and laundry washing, or yoga.

It’s hard to describe how it was like to spend some time in Varanasi, in the gaths. It was a metaphysical and spiritual experience. One that it’s very important in my life.