Sunday, February 8, 2009



(Benaras is now properly called Varansi, but I liked the alliteration)

In my last post I said that the Ganges River and the holy city of Varanasi on its banks are believed to be a “crossing” or sacred place where mortals can cross over to the divine (and vice versa). That is why all Hindus want to die there or have their ashes thrown into the Ganges so that they can achieve moksha, the salvation of the soul from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. (You may have seen in the film “The Namesake” that the family brought the ashes of the dead father from the United States to throw into the Ganges.)

As soon as we arrived in Vanarasi, riding in a taxi from the airport, we encountered a funeral procession – four men carrying on their shoulders the poles of a stretcher on which was a body wrapped in red silk and covered with flowers. (We later learned, if the body is wrapped in a red sari, it’s a woman. If it’s wrapped in gold cloth, it’s a man.)

When you walk along the ghats or steps on the sides of the Ganges you will see two cremation ghats where male untouchables cremate bodies all day and night. We went near with a guide but kept a respectful distance and did not take photographs, of course, because it would be disrespectful. The photos above of dead bodies are post cards I bought.

Later, after dark, like all other visitors to Vanarasi, we hired a small rowboat to take us down the river where we saw the burning ghats from a distance in the darkness and then anchored near the shore to watch the holy men perform their synchronized fire worship with torches. (They now perform beneath neon-lit “umbrellas” which represent the large umbrellas under which they sit all day.)

On the river there were two larger boats full of Japanese tourists who wore masks over their nose and mouth, which was not a bad idea since I managed to inhale enough ash in the smoky air to have a coughing fit. One can only wonder about the lifetime effects of breathing in that smoke (which casts a constant fog over the river). But somehow the natives don’t seem to become ill from swimming in the polluted river or inhaling the endless smog.

Fascinating facts about the cremation of the bodies on the huge wood fires made from logs of teak and sandalwood. The bodies, wrapped in silk, are first bathed in the river, then coated with a flammable paste and incense powder to hide the smell. Fat people burn faster, thin people more slowly. It takes about four hours for the body to be reduced to ashes which are then thrown into the river by a male relative. It’s also a male relative who lights the funeral pyre.

Our guide told us there are seven kinds of people who are not allowed to be cremated (due to bad karma, I guess, or the danger of spreading germs in the smoke.) I can name five of these: people who died of suicide, snakebite or smallpox, pregnant women who died with the baby unborn, and newborn babies. (I don’t swear this is accurate—it’s what I was told.) Those who are not cremated are wrapped with stones in the wrappings and tossed into the river, to sink. An estimated 45,000 UNCREMATED bodies are dumped into the river each year!)

Watching the fires burning at night from the distance of a boat on the river, it’s an awesome and beautiful sight. Even watching close up from the shore, it’s a moving and sacred thing to see these individuals being delivered into the afterlife with such ceremony and love. While we were there, the children were all practicing kite flying because the nationwide Kite Festival was approaching. As the dead were being burned, women in saris were doing laundry, the holy men were bathing and chanting, the children were playing and selling necklaces of flowers to throw into the river. On the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi the bustling activities surrounding life and death all take place side by side , unremarkably, because birth, play, work and death are all threads in the tapestry of life in India.

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