The last charred piece floated momentarily before slowly sinking into the murky depths of the Ganges. I watched the young man as he surveyed this moment, and then slowly turned back towards the handlers to get guidance for the next steps. They handed him a ceramic urn, which he then filled with water and carried back up to the remaining embers of the fire. He doused the fire with the holy water for the first of what would be five times.
This is a difficult entry to write. The intensity with which one experiences Varanasi is impossible to overstate - it is simply one of the most evocative and sometimes baffling experiences anyone could ever have. There is no way that I can accurately portray what we saw here simply by tapping words out on this keyboard.
The river is extremely low at this time of year, and the full extent of the Ghats is exposed to the sun; so much so that you can actually see the ends of the stairs, and the dirt bottom of the river is visible in some areas. Literally, the river rises nearly 20 metres at the peak of the monsoon. This is almost impossible to understand but you can see the high water marks on the various buildings in and amongst the Ghats.
We walked almost the entire length of the Ghats, taking in the surreal experience that is this holiest of Hindu places. There are two main cremation Ghats, and when you arrive at these, you are accosted by many guides who want to explain everything to you. They claim to be "improving their Karma by educating people" and want no money, but in the end you usually give some. Although we did listen to one boy, we did most of our watching on our own. In one place, we climbed into what we were told was a hospice for people with no family. The hospice attempts to collect money by explaining the death process to tourists in order to be able to buy wood for the cremation of those who have no family. We're not certain if we were taken, but it did seem legitimate from what we could see. We also heard later on from our boatman that there were other hospices around; one in particular was worked by Mother Theresa (even though I thought she was Catholic, was she not?) Who knows? A small amount anyway for what will probably go to something good, even if it's just food.
It is an incredibly moving and sometimes disturbing sight to watch these goings on being a westerner; it is so different from anything we might experience at home. Kristine was more comfortable with it than I was, owing I think to her greater ability with respect to spiritual things, although I have to admit, the simplicity with which the ceremonies are performed and the meanings that are attached to the various activities have an oddly natural sense to them. I think this might be a big part of Hinduism - a sort of matter of factness about life and death and continuity.
The process begins with the body being wrapped in cloth and carried on a bamboo stretcher through the very tight and windy old streets of Varanasi's old city. Often, the stretcher will be adorned with other cloths depending on the amount of money the family might have. The body is carried normally by a group of men who are considered outcasts from society whose job it is to manage the body and assist the families. The families follow along. The body is brought to the river and removed from the stretcher and placed in the river. It is soaked and doused for several minutes to represent a cleansing prior to the actual cremation. While this is going on, other outcast workers are weighing pieces of wood on large balances in an attempt to calculate the cost of the cremation based on the weight of the body. The family must pay for the required wood, and it's expensive, so having just the right amount and not too much is important. A small tower is built with the larger logs, and the body is placed face up on the logs. A few other logs are placed on top of the body.
While this is all being prepared, the nearest male in relation to the deceased is preparing for the ceremony. Sometimes this is a son, sometimes a brother, etc. The man must shave his body completely with the exception of a small tuft on the back of his head, and then also cleanse himself in the Ganges. After this, he drapes himself in white cloth to represent purity. Once ready, one of the helpers hands him a bushel of small sticks upon which he will source the flame from a nearby temple. Before getting the fire, the man passes the bushel around the head of the body five times to represent the five elements in Hinduism (earth, water, air, fire, and spirit). He then walks around the body five times before getting the flame. At this point, the head and feet are exposed and clearly visible.
The locals claim the fire in the temple has burned for over 2000 years and this flame of continuity has been used for all cremations since. Difficult to fathom, but this may be true. Once the family man has the flame on his bushel, he then lights the bottom of the wood pile to start the cremation process. He then steps aside, and the process is handled by one of the outcast workers. The cremation takes approximately 3 hours to complete, and is quite disturbing to watch. There are several going on at once, all at different stages. In some there are merely small pieces remaining, in others you can see a complete torso and head still attached, and in others, the arms and legs have not yet been burned enough to be snapped off (which is what they do). The workers tend the fires and continuously move the logs and the bodies to ensure complete combustion. However, the entire body never burns. In women, the pelvis never completely combusts, and in men, it is the sternum. These last pieces are carried by the young shaved man in between a couple of sticks to the edge of the river and tossed in. They float momentarily, and then sink to the bottom of the river. It is said that the fish will eat these pieces, and if they do, they will be re-incarnated as human beings.
Next comes the five urns of water. On the very last one, the young man faces away from the fire and throws the entire urn over his shoulder and it smashes on to the fire. This act represents the final liberation of the spirit for re-incarnation, and the man must walk away from this without looking back in order for the spirit to be fully liberated. Once this is done, young children begin setting logs for the next cremation, and the process starts again - 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Oddly, there is lots of smoke, but no smell. The people claim this is due to the purity of the place. For a Hindu, to die and be cremated here is of great significance, and it can also be seen in the everyday life along the river. We took a sunrise boat ride to watch the awakening city, and the sights were surreal. Bathing men and women. People doing laundry. Kids brushing their teeth with the ash and sand from the river bed. Old women actually drinking the water. A dead dog floating by. Pieces of ash from the cremation Ghats.
Some are not cremated though, because they are considered to be "already pure". These include children (because they have not lived long enough to become un-pure), pregnant women (because they have children), Holy men (because they are considered inherently pure), lepers (because they already belong to God), and people who have been bitten by cobras (because the cobra is considered a sacred animal accompanying Shiva). For these people, heavy rocks are tied to their bodies, and they are simply thrown overboard in the centre of the river. This is why bodies will sometimes be seen floating in the Ganges.
The river itself is almost technically dead. It is septic (there is no dissolved oxygen), and coliform counts have been shown to be thousands of times higher than what is considered safe for just swimming. There is a lot of garbage too. Yet, the city's water intake is from the river. It is no wonder that Varanasi is considered one of the least healthy places in all of India. The spirituality of the river is heavily overshadowed by the unfortunate reality of life in India. But the people pay this no mention, as they flush their mouths and then vomit right back into the river. It seems insane.
Our journey here was also interesting. Our coach was not that crowded so we both got bottom bunks, which is great for keeping an eye on the bags. There was a nice Indian girl with us who had just completed University and was working as a computer engineer in Delhi, and going back to Varanasi to visit her family. There were also a very weird couple of guys to whom we lent our playing cards (because they asked). The guy was eyeing up Kristine and the other girl all night on the train, which made it difficult to sleep. In the morning he came and sat next to us for a few moments, and he then lifted his shirt and produced a revolver from beneath his belt. I motioned that we wanted nothing to do with this and smiled and he seemed to understand, but the whole thing was a little creepy. Shortly after that, our pre-arranged ride from the hotel driver showed up right on the train, breaking the tension around the revolver thing. The guy was carrying a sign with big red letters that said "CHRISTINE".
The Indian girl thought she could get off at the next station, but her ticket was only to our station, so she came with us. She and the driver talked, and she asked if we minded giving her a lift to her home, and she invited us for tea. We accepted not being in any particular rush. What followed was an interesting half hour in which I think we met what would be a typical upper middle class family in India. Varanasi is a big university town, and the girl's home was on the campus. Her sister had just secured a job as a professor at the university, and one got the feeling that this was the family's ticket out of poverty. In the house, we met many children who were all brothers, sisters, and cousins. Then a mother and an aunt. Many people were living together in this small space, but it was relatively clean and there was furniture. I am certain they would be considered very lucky, and it was clear that education had provided their salvation.
We were served water, Indian tea, and a snack made of dried noodles, peas, and a few other things that made it sort of like spicy bits and bites. The conversation was slow and a bit choppy owing to various proficiencies with English, but they were very interested as to why people from a place like ours would come to a place like India where there is so much chaos. We tried to explain that it is precisely this, and the people - to understand better why this is as it is, to learn. I think they liked the answer. Our driver then got a little impatient, needing to get back to work, and he motioned that we needed to get going. Kristine exchanged contact information with the young girl, and then everyone (I mean everyone!) came out to see us off. It was an interesting start to this most interesting of cities.
On the whole though, I would describe Varanasi as "rough". It's dirtier, smellier, hotter, and the touts are more persistent than other places we've been. It ain't an easy travel. In addition, you are in a constant state of semi health while here, owing to continuous minor diarrhoea from the various foreign bacteria in your body. It can wear you down for sure. Yet, it would be impossible I think to come to India without seeing this incredible place; this place which carries uniqueness unequalled anywhere on the planet I am sure.
In contrast, we are going to spend our last few days in India near Dharamsala, which is in the high foothills of the Indian Himalaya. It will be cooler there, before we head back to sweltering Thailand. Nearby is McLeod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan Government. This should provide a nice contrast to our recent experiences, which I think at this point, will be most welcomed.