It has taken me some time to put pen to paper about my time in Varanasi. I had saved the best for last in India, after hearing all sorts of crazy things about the holy city.
Varanasi is knows as the melting pot of India, where death and life come together in a strange mix of a dream world, which is neither a good dream or a nightmare. The old city is a mixture of very narrow streets, shops that fall out onto the narrow lanes and cows that line the already very tiny streets.
By the time I arrived in Varanasi, I was tired… Tired of all the pack up and go, tired of the constant fight to get to places I wanted to go, tired of the accommodation hassle (finding decent accommodation within our budget without have to batter for everything) and tired of capturing the essence that India is in a photograph. Thus I don’t have very many photos of Varanasi.
If you are a sensitive reader – I would advice not to read this section regarding the Burning Ghats.
I had always known that Varasani had Ghats (the term ghat refers to a series of steps leading down to a water body, usually a holy river). Manikarnika Ghat being one which is widely known for being a place of Hindu cremation, thus making Varanasi a sacred city for Hindus. But I honestly had no idea what I was in for.
Jovan and I arrived in Varanasi and before we could even settle into our hotel, the manager had us up and out of his door, taking us on a personal tour of the ghats. He choose a quieter route to get us down to the ghats, and what an adventure of narrow lanes, jumping across rubble and winding our way down very steep stairs to get there.
I was only too grateful for some comic relief en route when Jovan got chased by a water buffalo. I had thought that all animals in India were tame – but this one ran towards him like a bull does a matador in Spain. I know I shouldn’t laugh – but those who know me, know that in very tense inappropriate situations – I generally laugh, and this was one of those. Jovan spun on his heels, fleeing from the buffalo to hide behind the guide and myself. Lesson learnt: not all animals in India may be wild, but that doesn’t make them tame.
I felt privileged, in a weird way, to experience the burning ghat. Indian woman are not allowed in these areas, as the guide told us that they become overly emotional; crying, sobbing and generally causing an unpleasant environment for the spirit; which would make passing for the soul difficult. I do not agree with this explanation, and as a woman there are many ‘freedoms’ the West has given me, that I am more and more grateful for. The guide also said that another reason woman were not allowed at the ghats was the fear that a grieving wife or daughter might sati herself with the body of their loved ones (see sati posting). Now that is something I can understand.
Seeing the burning ghats left me feeling completely uneasy. When we arrived, 2 bodies were being cremated. The one was completely engulfed in beautiful silver looking flames. The second body was struggling to burn, with the body looking sandwiched (feet next to the head). It was a difficult thing to watch and as much as I tried to look away, I was drawn to the old man trying to stoke the fire so that the body would finally disintegrate. During the cremation the oldest or youngest son is charged with the responsibility of attending to the fire and ensuring the body is fully disintegrated. I asked why the middle son was not allowed to perform this duty – and if you know the answer, please let me know – as far as the guide knew it was due to superstitious reasons.
Our guide told us that the body is taken down to the holy Ganges and washed for a final time before the cremation occured. The body, wrapped in white linen is then put onto a bed of logs, which is lit from a 3000 year old flame that has never been put out. Once the spine has been burn, the body is snapped in half so to condense the fire and cremate the body quicker (thus our view of the head and feet together). The guide also mentioned the superstitions that accompany the cremations. If a person has lived a wholesome life, their body is said to cremate quickly. “If not… Then” and he pointed at the body which was taking its toll of the crematory fire.
The Manikarnika Ghat is a sacred holy ground where ‘Moksha’ can be obtained. In Indian religions moksha (meaning liberation or final release) is the final extrication of the soul from an earth bound body and thus bringing an end of repeated death and rebirth (reincarnation) cycle as an earthy being. It is an expensive process and not all Indians will have the privilege in this life time.
I found it interesting that there are 5 types of people who may not get burnt:
1. Children under a certain age because their souls are still pure so they do not need to get purified.
2. People suffering from smallpox and lepers
3. Pregnant women because they carry a new life in their body
4. People bitten by a cobra as they may come back to life (these bodies are sent down the river on floating boats with the hope that holy men (‘sadhu’s’) will bring them back to life. The snake bite victim will then spend the rest of their days indebted to the sadhu.
5. Holy men/priests/sadhus because their souls are already pure and they thus do not need the purification of cremation.
These bodies are put into the holy Ganges with a rock tied to them, and offered in that manner. At times dead babies have been seen floating down the river. These are called Shiva babies due to their blue blown up look (Shiva being the blue Hindu god).
Seeing the burning ghats made me appreciate life in a manner I cannot describe, but it also left a very uneasy feeling within my soul, and is something I would never want to witness again.