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Published: February 27th 2007
Last week a massive terror attack just outside Delhi ripped through two carriages of a sleeper train. Not a pretty sight, about 40 people were killed, burned to death in the carriages, trapped because as there was no way out. Bars on the windows prevented people escaping and the doors jammed so people just couldn’t get off. Needless to say this makes you think about what mode of transport to take. So I reneged on the budget sleeper option for the train to Varanasi and stepped up a few classes to the luxury of a double bunk, A/C sleeper train. In the event of an emergency I figured I’d at least be able to kick out the glass windows of the train. Paranoia maybe! But the comfort factor alone was satisfying, plus I actually get a damn good sleep in the luxury of A/C away from the commoners.
So where to start with Varanasi? The holiest city in India where thousands upon thousands of Hindu pilgrims come to wash away there sins in the famous Ganges River. Though despite all my sins there was no way I was touching let although bathing in the filthy excuse of a river. It
is at the Ganges Ghats where life and death come together, the cycle of birth and death is on full display . For thousands of years people have been thronging these Ghats to offer their morning prayers to the rising sun (puja) as well as wash and bathe each morning across the 80 or so Ghats. But lets just make it clear how bad this water is. Apparently the water is that heavily polluted that the water is septic - no dissolved oxygen exists. God knows how people do not get sick from bathing in it. Needless to say during one ceremony on the ghats some twat was throwing water across everyone, and I ended up cover in it, across my face, mouth…. Thankfully I didn’t get sick, but I could feel the weight drop from my shoulders as my sins washed off like grass stains from cricket trousers, (not).
The activity on the banks of the Ganges is never ending weather its ritual daily cleansing, Sadhu’s peacefully smoking on their pipes, cricket games by local boys, yoga, street hawkers selling flowers, biscuits, massages (you name it) or simply loitering on the streets, you can spend hours just people
watching. And although this may be free, you need a stick to beat off the carnivores attempting to extract cash from you any way possible. And of course as with the rest of India it wouldn’t quite be complete without its own assortment of farm animals from, goats, cows, buffalo to scabby dogs and scurrying rodents.
Now I was pretty excited to head down to the burning ghats to full experience and appreciate this circle of life, and the cremation ghats aren’t really that hard to spot really, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. In all honesty it was not as confronting as I was expecting. The cremation is a quite a complex process. Firstly, the body is carried through the winding streets on a stretcher covered in cloth. Upon arrival at the Ganges the body is immersed in the water, and a pyre of wood is assembled. The body is placed upon this pyre and is topped with offerings. Then the eldest male in the family weather its father, son or uncle bathes in the Ganges, shaves his head, dresses in white robes and performs a ritual to represent earth, air, water, fire and spirit. The whole pyre is
Sadhu off Chops.
Thats not face paint he's covered in but ash from the cremation ghats.
lit and the male side of the family watch as the smoke swirls to the heavens above. Surprising there is no stench of burning flesh, due to the addition of sandalwood which prevents an unpleasant odor emitting from the fire. I guess this also takes away part of the shock factor. A body takes about three hours to cremate and the only parts left at the end of the process are the male’s chest and female’s pelvis. These are offered to the Ganges, completing the circle of life where fish and other entities fed on the remains. (But supposedly there are no fish because there’s no oxygen in the water, so not sure how that works?). Another interesting fact is that the women are not permitted to attend, due to too much wailing and crying, which prevents the soul researching Nirvana. Also wives have been know to throw their bodies onto the burning pyres to die with there other half, now that’s devotion.
Mind you the privilege of cremation isn’t cheap and not all persons are eligible to be cremated; Sadhus, children, people bitten by snakes, pregnant women, and people who suffered from leprosy. Those who are unable to
be cremated are taken to the centre of the Ganges, weighted down and sent to the bottom of the holy river. Good old cement shoes, the Mafia would be proud.
I think the reason why this act is not as confronting as expected is because it is treated with respect and dignity. It’s just another process, albeit the final in this life. It is an act which is done with such compassion and honor, it really is everyday life here. The main burning ghats run 24 hours a day, and the stock piles of timber are never is short supply. Mind you it does make you cringe slightly when you watch the bodies being turned and you can make out the charred remains of the skull and other prominent bones protruding from the body. And sorry to say I don’t have any photos for the curious ones as well, it wouldn’t quite be right, plus it’s a hefty jail term if you do get caught taking photos.
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