Varanasi, one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in India if not the world, has been a city of cultural and religious importance for millennia. Befitting a city of such antiquity, it has acquired several nick-names throughout its long history- the ‘city of temples’, ‘the holy city of India’, ‘the religious capital of India’, ‘the city of lights’ and ‘city of learning’. Varanasi holds a special place in Jain, Buddhist and Hindu religions. For Jains, its esteem was cemented as three of their holy leaders were born here. Buddha gave his first sermon to his disciples in a place close to Varanasi, meaning the
region is the area where Buddhism was founded. But given the pre-dominance of Hinduism, Varanasi is most famed for its connections to that religion. It remains one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities and an important place of pilgrimage. Varanasi
|Varanasi shares a special relationship with the Ganges.|
|Array of colours drying by the river|
Men and women bathe in the holy waters along her course, disregarding bacterial counts many times higher than WHO guidelines (fecal coliform counts downstream of
are one hundred times that of official Indian limits). They disregard health warnings to pay homage to their ancestors and to the gods by letting Varanasi Ganga’s water flow over them, pouring contaminated yet holy water over their heads from cupped palms. Attempts to clean it up have been described as a “failure”, a “major failure”, a “colossal failure” and a “widely recognized failure”. FAIL then.
|Hard-braving the Ganges|
Much like people collect holy water from the
Vatican, Hindus will carry water from the Ganges for use in rituals. The British carried large quantities in ships that housed Indian labourers, both for use in rituals and to try and appease those Hindus who felt that they would lose their caste if they traveled across the ocean. Nehru, the first Prime Minister of an independent India, described the Ganges as “The Ganga is the , beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her racial memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of river of India India's age-long culture and civilization, ever-changing, ever-flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga."
|Small boats line the Ganges waiting for fares (preferably from a foreigner so they can charge higher prices)|
People come to
to die and/or to be cremated here. Cremation occurs on the ghats, the series of steps that lead down to a river, with bodies burnt on pyres of wood. As all Hindus wish to be cremated here, large piles of different types of wood used to construct the funeral pyres of the faithful deceased lie in the back-alleys near the ghats. Each type of wood has different values with sandalwood being the most expensive. Families buy what they can afford. If the deceased family was poor and they couldn’t afford to buy wood, the body will not be cremated at all. Some families can only afford either a minimal amount of wood or poor quality wood, which often results in a half burned body. Cremation happens on the ghats with the relative position of the funeral pyre determined by the caste of the deceased. After cremation, the ashes and bones of the deceased are then thrown into the Varanasi Ganges. Those who might have died far from the Ganges can have their ashes scattered there if their family can afford to get them there. To avoid epidemics that have been spread more quickly from bodies thrown into the Ganges, only ashes and bones are supposed to be scattered in the river. There are exceptions to the rule; the bodies of holy men, pregnant women, lepers, snake-bite victims, suicides, paupers and infants are not cremated but allowed to decompose in the river. Apparently, turtles have been trained to consume dead flesh and not to bother swimmers or bathers.
|The piles of wood used for cremations|
We somehow navigated our way through and around the maze-like arcades of
. The Varanasi Ganges is the dominant presence, the heart of the city as it winds laboriously through the city of more than a million. Mud piles up around the ghats, evidence of the Ganges tendency to flood annually, its function as both a giver and a taker of life. Holy men are more evident here than they were in other cities and bhang, a combination of cannabis, milk, ghee and spices, is a common sight, being prepared on the steps of the ghats, a green paste made in mortar and pestle. Government shops also sell it and they do a brisk trade selling to holy men, locals and interested foreigners.
|Trident traveller: Sadhu at rest.|
The smell of sweat and cow dung used as fuel merges with the smell of wood. Mongooses dart between the feet of travelers and hide among the accumulated woodpiles. As you get closer to the
Ganges, other smells can be detected, the smell of burning wood, the smell of death. Here, along the banks of the Ganges, the earthly remains of the faithful met their end, under the gaze of family members and foreigners. Gathered together in a second-floor window, a spot secured by a donation, supposedly given to poor families to buy wood (although I suspect it is just pocketed by the enterprising entrepreneur), we could look over one of the ghats, one of the most famous and prestigious in . A stiff wind blew smoke and ash from burning bodies back into our faces, the wind and fire conspiring to remove the funerary cloth of the deceased, exposing limbs and torsos to all interested parties, glimpses into the last ritual of life. Varanasi
It’s as macabre as it sounds, a tourist attraction based on the local industry of death. Most tourists are respectful of the requests to not take photos of the funeral pyre. Others blatantly disregard it, taking snapshots of burning bodies, pictures that they can use to tell stories with back home. It would be little worse if they went and touched the bodies and I wonder if any of them had stopped to contemplate this situation in reverse, think about how they would feel if it was their dear mother sitting in a funeral parlour, touched, leered at and talked about by strangers, photos taken to illustrate a story. I would hope that if these tourists had taken a moment to think about it like this that they would have stopped. Unfortunately,
India and its accompanying human travesties desensitize and dehumanize the long-term traveller who grow accustomed to the extreme poverty, the desperation and body mutilations commonly seen around . Given this, I guess this final indignity, the act of recording so sensitive a ceremony for personal gratification, can be explained if not justified. India
|Boating along the Ganges on the look-out for bodies|
At dusk, we took a boat-ride along the
Ganges, the light from the pyres standing out in the gloom, as the last of the stored energy potential in the bodies is converted to heat and light. Unlike many travellers, we didn’t see any bodies floating past, just the bloated body of a dog. We stopped midstream, where a puja was being performed by seven Brahmin priests who prayed and made offerings for Shiva, Ganga and world peace on behalf of the pious. They were watched by a multitude of the merely curious, who watched on from a myriad of boats anchored together in the middle of the Ganges. Amid drumming and chants, we released candles that floated like so many spirits back towards the mouth of the Ganges before heading back to our hotel. Life is frantic here and dirty but there is also a spiritual side that is commendable. It’s just a pity that the visitors who deem it acceptable to photograph burning bodies of somebody’s loved one can’t find the spirit to avoid doing such a tasteless act. Just like a glass of Ganges water, this behaviour left a dirty and lingering bad taste in your mouth, behaviour not befitting a city with such a proud history.