The dog’s oozing red eye followed me as I was navigating the tiny, uneven pathways snaking through Varanasi, its motions unnaturally slow and pained. As the days passed, I noticed more dogs with red, bulbous eyes laying in distorted positions, while cows with deformed horns inched along the alleys.
Backpackers spoke of the strange “vibe” in Varanasi and the sicknesses travelers seem to acquire while in this Indian town. Their vivid stories couldn’t prepare me for the reality.
The feeling of death, heavy and crushing under the humid summer air, remained even as the sun appeared. Like the animals, people moved slow and injuries abounded. My friend stubbed her toe, requiring a hospital visit, and a hostel roommate was bitten by three monkeys at a temple.
Shortly into my stay in Varanasi, I became disinterested, distant. I wasn’t attracted to the city as I was to the rest of India. But to fully appreciate and understand Varanasi, I had to encounter death.
While out one evening, several men passed by me carrying colorfully swaddled bodies. Used to experiencing death at a distance in American culture, I wasn’t sure how to react. It felt disrespectful to be so close to someone’s deceased loved one.
A man approached, asking to show me around the ghats. Not wanting to make a spectacle of the burnings, but not wanting to close myself off from local encounters, I let him tell me the history of the burnings as the orange embers and ashes flew around us.
“Do you see any women here?” the man asked. I then realized I was the only female.
“They are not allowed because they cry and crying is prohibited on the ghats,” said the man.
For centuries, Hindus across India have brought their dead to Varanasi for customary burials. Hundreds of bodies are burned every day, the ashes spread in the swirling Ganges river. Those fortunate to die here are said to obtain moksha, freedom from the cycle of death.
I sat near the funeral pyres, observing locals tending to the fires, sifting through ashes and bathing in the river. These men, covered in sweat and enveloped in the smoldering heat, were within inches of death every day, yet they laughed and splashed in the water.
This proximity to death made me realize how often my own culture tries to avoid its imminent approach – to push it away with pills and beauty routines. But here death was a tangible and persistent presence – not a finality. Only through seeing death could I fully appreciate living.