Backpacking in Varanasi, India

Backpacking in Varanasi- a place of pilgrimage

In Varanasi, among the 2000 or so temples, is a charity-run hostel – Mukti Bhavan (‘Salvation House’) – where the guests come to die. The room tariff includes the wood for the funeral pyre. This isn’t a hostel for backpacking in Varanasi.

Guests check-in to check-out.

To be clear, this isn’t a centre for suicide. Not an Indian version of Dignitas, the Swiss one-stop-shop for euthanasia. The very old and very sick come here when death is imminent.

Hindus believe the rituals performed here, on the banks of the River Ganges, will liberate them from the cycle of death and rebirth. Their souls will fly free for eternity in heaven. Not be reincarnated on earth as a wretched animal with a wretched life.

Priests live at the hostel permanently. On call. Ready to help with the rituals of the death. The body is lovingly washed, wrapped in linen, then lifted onto the funeral pyre. The ashes are tossed into the water. Loved ones involved at each stage. It is the burning of the body here, they believe, that frees the soul from its temporary, earthly home.

High Season at Mukti Bhavan is Winter. When harsh temperatures hasten the demise of the ailing.

A version of this hostel features in the new film Hotel Salvation – a comedy about death. A father, close to the end, travels to Varanasi with his reluctant son. Timing is critical; hostel policy is a maximum stay of 15 days. There can be no dragging the chain here. If he hasn’t popped his clogs in that time he must check out, in the more traditional sense, to give the opportunity to someone whose need is more pressing. Mukti Bhavan has only 12 rooms.

Hotel Salvation Trailer

Hotel Salvation (watch trailer to the end)

Backpacking in Varanasi

As young travellers, backpacking in Varanasi, we knew little of Hindu culture. Research for our trip was cursory. Open minds and wide-eyed curiosity was our modus operandi. Adventure. To touch, taste and smell India, first-hand.

Our hotel manager in Delhi recommended a visit Varanasi. Had the internet existed in 1990, we would have known that Varanasi is ‘…regarded as the spiritual capital of India, the city draws Hindu pilgrims who bathe in the Ganges River’s sacred waters and perform funeral rites.’

We checked into yet another underwhelming hotel. Rooms were big but sparse. Iron framed beds had lumpy mattresses and there was a reassuring, but overwhelming, smell of disinfectant. Bathrooms were disappointing. No toilet paper. Just a plastic jug and a flexible hose.


Walking down to the Ganges

We closed our windows to keep out marauding monkeys before joining the crowd snaking down to the River Ganges. Keeping our small group together was impossible. The mass of people carried us along, pulling in different directions. Like the fast-moving currents of the Ganges itself. I focused on the dusty, uneven surface of the road to avoid tripping over.

Drumming, chanting, singing, clanging of bells. As the noise grew louder I felt my shirt vibrating on my chest. Open fires created an orange aura around the buildings. The smell of burning Incense was intense, cloying. People were everywhere – standing, squatting, sitting. Some had waded out into in the river, splashing the sacred water on themselves with cupped hands. I felt shots of adrenaline. In the true sense, filled with awe. Here, now, backpacking in Varansi, I felt I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Tourists, Western and Indian, mixed with Pilgrims. The, now familiar, obligatory lone cows got themselves comfortable amongst the people. Veiled eyes creating a sleepy, disinterested expression. Small vessels made of flower petals and leaves floated passed carrying Ghee or Camphor candles. Offerings to the deities (called ‘Aarti’).

Backpacking in Varanasi - The Ganges
Backpacking in Varanasi – Graeme blending in with the pilgrims at the Ganges
Backpacking in Varanasi - a cow
Backpacking in Varanasi – a cow by The Ganges

Different attitudes to death

This attitude to death contrasts with the quiet stoicism I experienced growing up in the UK. Here death is uninhibited. Intimate, physical and emotionally frank. This was expressed by the British comedian Victoria Wood with a wry comparison with the Northern England approach: ‘In India, if a man dies the widow flings herself onto the funeral pyre … in this country the woman just says ’72 naps, Connie, you slice, I’ll spread’.*

Internalising grief is the way of things in the UK. Silent, flowing tears the only release. At a funeral, death is both the main event and the elephant in the room. Accepted conversation starters are ‘it’s a nice day for it’, ‘it was a nice service wasn’t it?’, ‘how are you?’

Here the dying are held, comforted, washed. Grieving is loud and demonstrative. Cremation is done by the family. Not outsourced to dour strangers in well-worn black suits.

There are problems though. The sacred waters of the Ganges have become polluted. Poorer families want eternal liberation for the souls of their loved ones too, but lack the means to pay for the quantity of wood needed to burn the body properly. Consequently partially burned corpses float down the river, decomposing. Healthy Hindu Pilgrims come to Varanasi to wash away their sins. In doing so they are putting themselves in potential danger.

* baps are small bread rolls used for sandwiches



Hotel Salvation: