Varanasi, the Ganges, the burning Ghats- I started to like India

Travel Journal Overview: The guide book said the place was a nightmare, I didn’t believe a word of it.  I was right. Varanasi quickly won me over, and my true like for India became evident.

Men at dawn on the Ganges, Varanasi, India (click to enlarge)
Men at dawn on the Ganges, Varanasi, India (click to enlarge)

I left the train and bid Garima farewell as she met her uncle on the platform. The station was not nearly as overcrowded as the LP had stated. And only a few people came up to me offering hotels and cheap rides. No sign of my hotel guy though. I tried giving the hotel a quick call before heading out just as Roberto and Gillian, the Italian’s, showed up. This coincided with a short shaven headed man called Raja introducing himself to me, he was indeed from my hotel, the Sai Kripa.

We all bundled into Raja’s little white car and drove the short distance to the Sai Kripa Hotel. The hotel was simple, friendly and quiet nice. At only 300 Rupees per night we were all quite happy to stay there. I had a shower and joined the Italians on the roof for breakfast.

The view was at first a little disappointing. There is the distance was hazy inkling of what might have been the Sacred Ganges River. It turned out it was a good thing the river was not so close by. Raja offered to take me on a free tour of the river. Free was the word I liked there.

I was a little skeptical over this free tour, it seemed a bit to good to be true. But once we headed down towards the river I was impressed with Raja’s knowledge of the Ganges. The streets were surprisingly quiet, and I was beginning to wonder if the LP writer had been here at all.

Washing Cows on the Ganges
Washing Cows on the Ganges

The Ganges itself was much as I had expected, large, meandering and quite brown looking. A steady haze held the distant shoreline captive as I began to take distant photographs. It was with Raja’s insistence that I take closer pictures of the people along the shoreline as they washed clothes and bathed in the murky brown river. We walked further along the river and Raja took delight in explaining to me the names of the different temples we past by. Up ahead my mind was distracted by the tell tale plumes of dark wispy smoke appearing.

Funeral on the Ganges
Funeral on the Ganges

We approached the burning Ghats and walked up some steps to a small tower that overlooked the incredible scenes of life and death below. There were currently two piers burning with another 3 being prepared. Raja explained the whole process to me.

“People, they are coming here to die,” he said staring at me intently. “From all over the country they come here. It is very important to them that they are placed in the sacred waters of the mother Ganges. This is so they are not reincarnated.”

I looked at him inquisitively, not sure if I head him correctly. “Not, to be reincarnated?”

“Yes,” he continued prudently, “If they be having a good life, it is better not to come back after such good times. And if they are being bad people, then surely they do not want to be coming back to life as something so bad as like a… rat.”

Burning Pire on the Ganges
Burning Pire on the Ganges

He did have a point. His second point also made sense. “This is especially true of the Kings in the past. They be worried what they did might not make them come back so nice.”

He explained that the poor today could have a modern style electric cremation for only 500rps. While the richer, or those that could get the money together could pay upwards of 25rps per kilo of wood. And an average body takes about 2-3 hours to burn.

During this process the family would circle the body 7 times, on each occasion touching the dead’s lips with sacred fire from a nearby temple. After the body has been cremated, it’s ashes are pushed and thrown out into the river. A member of the persons family would then shave their head and dresses in white to show respect to the dead. During this period the family would also through a celebratory feast.

I looked on as more piers were being built. It was behind one pier that I saw a deceased man floating gently in the water. He was wrapped in white cloth and a gold tinsel like material with only his grey bearded face exposed. His relations would occasionally come up to him and pour some of the rivers water onto his lips. While all this spirituality was taking place great bulky cows roamed freely in amongst the mourners and dead. Eating the many orange and white flowers that adorned many of the dead as local dogs scoured for something else.

Washing Clothes in the Ganges River
Washing Clothes in the Ganges River

A great waft of black thick smoke came out way from the piers. Perhaps I did not like the smell because it was so strong. Or maybe because the thick sweet smell reminded me of Argentinian Beef on a barbecue. Either way it was not good.

A rigid body was hoisted up from the rivers edge and placed on a pier before being covered over by wood. Specialised cremator s appeared and began lighting the pier from the bottom.

Raja gave a further insight into life on the Ganges. “All these cremators, they are all working in this area for on man. ‘The King’. He runs this area. It is his. And anything they find here is his. This is meaning that all the jewellery and rings and things that do not burn are his after the cremation.”

I looked at him with pictures of people sifting through buckets of hideous mud. “Fillings from teeth?”

“Oh yes, plenty” replied Raja.

I looked in the other direction as a group of men appeared. The largest of the group, a heavy set man in a black leather jacket was carrying a small bundle. It was a child of about 2 years, dead. They carefully unwrapped the child from its blankets and placed the small body in a clean white sheet.

“They are going to cremate the child?” I asked.

Raja shook his head, “No, never a child. They will be taking a boat out to the river and placing the body there.”

I looked as the large man who I presumed to be the father struggled to keep himself composed. “Where is the mother?”

“No women are allowed to attend the service.” Replied Raja.

“That’s rough Raja, even the child’s own mother cannot attend. It’s gotta be hard.”

Raja wobbled his head a little, “And, you cannot cry tears here either. If you do, then the dead will forever be sad.”

They headed out on the little boat to the centre of the river. Slowly the little white bundle was lowered into the brown river until it dipped out of sight.

I thought about the amount of bodies, both whole and in the form of ash that must go into the river everyday. And then to see the bathing, the clothes washing, the body washing, the teeth brushing and the cows and the dogs all making use of the holy river. It was intense.

The freshly lit pier was now smoking heavily as several other extinguished piers had their remains brushed into the river. A scrawny dog zig zaged in between the piers as a cow picked up a garnet of orange flowers and chewed on them. The dog paddled into the rivers shores and dipped its snout into the brown water before pulling back with a blackened heart shaped object in its jaws. The dog crunched down on the remains a few times before jerking its head back and swallowing the remains.

Incinerator on the Ganges, Varanasi, India
Incinerator on the Ganges, Varanasi, India

The cow lurched forward and sent the dog running from its territory. But the dog persisted and quickly returned. Once again the dog tipped its head into the waters, this time returning with a the charred remains of what looked like kidneys and a long rib. A few locals waved the dog off. Not so much as scared rather than anxious the dog scampered a little before returning for another mouthful. It took a few more attempts before the dog eventually took flight.

According to Raja they did not frown upon the dog eating the human remains. In fact it was very good for the dog. For eating the human remains meant that the dog could be reincarnated as a human in his next life.

I felt like I had seen enough. The piers smoke was penetrating deep into my clothes and my throat had the taste of it all. We walked a little further with Raja continuing to explain the names and types of temples along the river bank. We visited the sacred temple that help the fire for the cremations. But really all I want was to return to the hotel and think over everything I had just seen and witnessed.

I ate a late lunch and spent most of the day on the hotel roof. It was there that I met Waseem the hotel owners son and arranged a river boat trip for the next day. The Italian’s came back from their walk and we settled in for a beautiful sunset, spoiled only by the wafts of charred smelling smoke. Thank goodness there was a hot shower in the hotel.

Some related links on this website that  you might like: (including a lot more photographs from India)

Stories: The Dealing with the Delhi Post Office

Stories: Accomplishing Something on the Ganges

Video: On the Ganges Ceremony

India Travel Guide

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