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Published: March 5th 2011
He stands at 5 foot tall (generous estimate) and I put him at perhaps 40 years of age. Multiple strands of beads hang from his neck, thin and wiry like the rest of his frail looking body. His scraggly facial hair looks disheveled yet kempt at the same time, framing a wrinkled face containing large eyes romantically described as deep like pools of… No, don’t fall for it. You read about men like him in the LP!!
He calls himself Kashibaba, which sounds complicated and special, but broken down just means “Kashi,” an old name for Varanasi, and “baba” which is the general term for the holy men in the city. Unimpressive, just like his general get up. He doesn’t even look all that
benevolent and he’s not really trying that
hard. I run through these thoughts in my mind, trying to resist his voice, metered and calm wafting into my ears. “… I can tell you the whole story, I can explain everything to you. What we do, why we do, how we do. Long history and very interesting, I will explain to you. Do you want to know?…” Oof, but I do
want to know, and right now I don’t
. I’m staying right at Scindhia ghat which lives next to the infamous main “burning” ghat, Manikarnika, and have walked by it countless times in awe and wonderment, eyes transfixed thus stepping in shit but always leaving just as clueless as I came. Yes, yes… you make a good point, Kashibaba.
Hmmmm, OK you got me.
… I’ll get over it. In the meantime, at least I’ve summarized the most interesting things learned in my opinion so that you don’t need to go through the feeling of self-doubt and failure that I have:
- There are a few burning ghats along the Ganges (and burning ghats all over India) but as Lord Shiva founded Varanasi, specific to Manikarnika ghat the single piece of wood at the top of the ghat carries the alleged 3,500 yr old burning Shiva fire. Families pay extra for the Shiva fire, and also pay for the wood used in the cremation, from 260 to 380 kilos per, different woods fetching different prices with mango wood being one of the cheapest to sandalwood being one of the more expensive. If families cannot afford this, they cremate bodies in their hometowns and
Manikarnika "burning" ghat
admit this picture is taboo...
bring the ashes to Varanasi to throw into the Ganges.
- It normally takes three to four hours for the body to burn to ash. Usually the chest bone on a man and the hips of a woman will not burn completely, and these bones are deposited into the river (along with the ashes later.)
- Manikarnika ghat burns bodies day and night, 24 hours a day, and performs 300 to 400 cremations every day. In Hindu culture, there are 5 kinds of people that cannot be burned. 1) holy men (already purified); 2) children under 13 (already innocent); 3) lepers (sign of god mother); 4) pregnant women (innocent baby inside); and 5) people dying of a cobra bite (poison but the body isn’t really dead). Instead, these bodies are tied to rocks and taken by boat to the middle of the Ganges where they are sunk. Fifty bodies a day are sunk like this, don’t ask me how the Ganges holds them all.
- Women no longer come to cremations as they used to jump in the fire with their husbands, as recently as 2.5 months ago this happened in another city. Also prohibited at the burning ghats are
suffered a terrorist bomb as late as Dec 2010 during the nightly ceremony
crying men, as crying disturbs the soul. Criers are thrown out.
- Photography at the ghat is not allowed.
Yes, you can read about men like Kashibaba, and by that I just mean that these holy men that explain the process to you will indeed at the end ask you for a donation towards the wood as families have a hard time paying for their ceremonies and the ghats also cremate many abandoned bodies of the homeless. They may lie and tell you wood costs 150 rupees per kilo when it only costs 15. They may lie and tell you they work all day in a hospice that doesn’t really exist bringing peace to people that have come to die in Varanasi awaiting their cremations. They may lie about this or that, but they will not lie about the history and the process of the ceremony and ritual. I did end up getting suckered and donated the equivalent of about 10 USD which is a fortune for “wood”, but in the end Kashibaba, a real holy man, did spend 20 minutes explaining everything and taking us around the whole ghat for each of the steps of cremation – just
the highlights are above. So, think of your “donation” as a small fee for the time the holy men take to explain, or as payment for a little more understanding and knowledge. If you read too much into it and get bitter, I suggest you just to not go with the holy men at all. It probably won’t help to tell you that I’m fairly certain my money went to buying drugs (pot, coke, crack are huge as people “enjoy and fly high with Shiva”) as I saw Kashibaba but 45 min later looking completely and utterly cracked out at 2pm.
Varanasi as you can imagine also hosts many different festivals and celebrations through the year. As luck would have it, the notorious Shiva festival was kicking off the night before our departure, right in front of our guesthouse at Parvati’s well. Or perhaps as luck would not have it. In the days leading up all we heard were warnings. Warnings of a wild, messy, frenzied festival bringing 3 million people to the banks of the Ganges. Except by “people” I mean men, and by “frenzied” I just mean “dangerous for a woman.” The guesthouse owner
the main "burning ghat"
tells us we shouldn’t go out tonight. I brush most of it off but keep the warnings in the back of my head, and around 7pm we have to head out of the guesthouse to 1) eat dinner, which was also available at our guesthouse, but more importantly 2) buy some food/bread for the next day’s 24-hr train ride to Amritsar at the Pakistan border. People warn us walking out to be back early as the festival will get pretty intense and it will be difficult to walk me back into the walkways leading from the ghat up to the guesthouse. A local friend demands we let him walk us on a route we should take back after dinner.
As the universe always works, that night dinner at Brown Bread takes two hours to come out, letting us head back around something near past 10. Brown Bread is situated relatively far inland and from here, everything seems OK. The alley way is quiet late at night, maybe even more quiet than usual, people walking are calm, and things are looking exaggerated. As we walk towards the river through the galis, the noise creeps up on us gradually while we
begin seeing the sporadic crew of men dash by, shouting and screaming, barefoot and near naked. We follow the route shown to us earlier that effectively takes you through the galis so you work moving parallel to the Ganga instead of walking on the ghats along it, but the situation still seems to be getting more severe. As we approach Manikarnika our route cannot avoid the waterfront albeit only for a span of about 5 minutes of walking, but activity explodes and soon we are surrounded elbow to elbow with heaving crowds of men, loud with chanting and shouting, bells clanking over it all. They push through, ecstatic and bulled up, soaked from jumping in the river wearing nothing but their underwear or wearing nothing at all. I walk with my hood up and my brother follows to ward off grabbing from behind, but it’s impossible to go unnoticed (with all the tourists in Varanasi, we only saw three others the whole time). Smiles and leering and sexual taunts fly, the crowd is thick already and a task to penetrate, but it being half naked made it doubly difficult for me to push through. I cannot walk behind Steve as
that pretty much guarantees hands all over me from behind. I turn back into a gali to figure something else out.
We stand there against the alley wall slightly defeated, feet covered in shit, bracing to just bear it and power through. I look back over and I see older men motioning me to go home almost angry and disapproving, younger men smiling back leering and lurking. I make a last ditch effort to find another route working behind the Marikarnika through the galis and beg an old man walking by with hand motions as he speaks no English. He is tall but thin, dressed in beiges and his aged face wears a long beard. He is obviously hurrying home himself to avoid the nasty crowd. But he looks me up and down, his eyes soften as he makes the understanding, and asks “where go?” I tell him Scindhia ghat
and he makes a bad face about it, which cannot be good news. Even worse, our guesthouse is not accessible from any gali inland as it is perched up on a hill with the only walkway coming off the ghat on the Ganga itself. He has a hurried conversation
with another passerby and soon we find ourselves scurrying behind him, weaving through the dark alleys, into and out of homes in alleys we’d not seen yet. Some intervals we must pop out onto the ghats and he shoos the boys away as I follow close behind. Eventually we pop out again this time past Scindhia, and our path back up to the guesthouse is in sight. This is as far as I can ask him to take us, and from there we continue by ourselves. With my brother following again, I head into the crowd and go into Bitch Mode, making the most confrontational eye-contact with anybody that looks at me and physically slapping away the few hands that grabs my arms. Amazingly it seems contained and a couple minutes later we make it back up onto the side of the hill without having me touched at all aside from my forearms.
It was an experience; they were not kidding when they warned me about this one. I usually don’t shy away from situations like these, but would definitely say as a woman this festival - at least the kick off on the first night - is probably
line of beggars down Dasaswamedh ghat
one to write off if you are here for it. (That said, I did encourage my brother to go back down and join the festivities after he walked me back.) The crowds are no big deal, just as messy and frenzied as Carnival in Salvador, or any concert pit area. The difference is though that this is a crowd of only men, some of which are totally naked, bulled up on adrenaline and probably a ton of drugs, but most importantly you are in India. These local men similar to many other regions such as the Middle East, already think foreign women are loose in standards and they will grab at you – and when one hand comes in, the whole mob will follow. I think I may have made this sound a bit dramatic but it's not dangerous to the point of rape (I don't think), but mob grabbing is not really much fun. It’s happened to me in Syria
, and it really sucks.
Stumbling back into the guesthouse, relieved, we see a small group of blonde European tourists were sitting in the small having just arrived in Varanasi unknowingly on this night. They are not guests
of the guesthouse but were seeking asylum. The three women (accompanied by four men) apparently arrived on the doorstep, crying.
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