The holiest place in India. An amazing scene from a 6,000 year old city nestled along the holy Ganga River. The Ganges as it is called by those from the outside, this river dissolves the bones and ashes of the devout Hindu followers.
The Manakarnika Ghats on the western banks of the Ganges is the ceremonial funeral pyre where the loved and deceased are cremated on a pyre of various types of wood their ashes then spread into the holy river. From the ashes any gold or other precious metals or stones are filtered out by the pyre attendants. The ash cleaners are considered lower caste and this is their payment for looking after the ashes. There is a strict policy when it comes to cremating your loved ones. First, women are not allowed to attend due to the crying and sobbing that comes with a loved ones death and the sadness is believed to bring bad luck to the souls passage into eternity. Also in years past and now against the law women would throw themselves on their husband’s pyres, a ritual known as self-immolation. If a father dies his oldest son attends to the cremation. If a mother dies her husband lights the fire, if a widow, her youngest son attends to the cremation. If there were no sons then a brother of one side or the other would attend. There are five situations where cremation will not occur. If a woman is pregnant, if a child is under 12 years old, if you died from a venomous snake bite, if you died from the pox or if you had leprosy. In these cases the bodies are tied to and weighted down with heavy rocks and the bodies are taken by boat to the middle of the Ganges and thrown over and sunk. The pyres are lit from a fire called the Shiva fires that legend says was lit 3,500 years ago and has been burning 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and has never been extinguished. Hindus believe that the banks of the Ganges at the holy city of Varanasi is the most sacred place on earth to die and some 300 people are cremated at the site everyday to liberate their souls and break the cycle of death and rebirth and reach nirvana. There are many situations where a body is not cremated, poor and unable to afford the cost of wood etc. where bodies are essentially dumped into the river, un-weighted and free to drift to the shores. We didn’t witness any of this but heard the stories of bloated bodies washing ashore and being eaten by the hundreds of stray dogs that live along the banks. The ritual of the cremation is too long to describe so best to do a quick Google for some fascinating background on this.
At the Southern end of the ghats,the Harichandra Ghat serves a different clientele and for a different reason. Suicides, murders, unconfirmed deaths etc. requires the investigation of the local coroner and after several days the bodies can become shall we say, quite rich in smell so for the less than a day or two old bodies wood is used and for the few days older an electric crematorium is used. From what we could see rowing past on a boat on the river there is no ceremony and no body coverings. Just the corpse laying upon the wooden pyre with a few logs on top. Wood cremation takes about 3-4 hours, electric about 45 minutes thus eliminating the addition of burning flesh smoke to the already smokey and air polluted city, which brings me to why the other cremation ghat doesn’t surprisingly smell of burning flesh and what keeps the fire burning hot. Well, copious amounts of incense, sandalwood (which is very expensive) herbs, perfumes and other nice smelling stuff keeps the smell at bay. It actually smells quite nice as you watch the pyre burn and hearing the skull crack after about 15 minutes indicating the soul has left the body but it is the butter, ghee, liquefied butter that is poured over the cloth wrapped corpse that gives that little bit of extra fuel needed to get the job done. In the hope that I’m not sounding sacrilegious I wonder where the saying “buttering somebody up” comes from?
Varanasi is a one of a kind place. 40% Muslim, 60% Hindu. The Muslim call to prayer echoes throughout the city five times a day, the Hindu chanting and drumming and evening ceremonies resonate throughout in between. The narrow alleyways of the old city buzz with a semi laid back activity of a very hard existence while the new city bursts with an unimaginable web and tangle of life on the edge of the holiest river and city in the world.
Varanasi sums up our existence revealing all that is good and bad and also forces us to see not only how far we have come but how far we still have to go. Varanasi is known as the City of Life and the City of death, where Karma and Nirvana serve their purpose very well.
It was tough to break away from Varanasi but we did manage to take a 1/2 day trip to nearby Sarnath, the site where Buddha preached his first message of the middle way to nirvana after he achieved enlightenment. Many of the ruins date back to the 3rd century BC and Sarnath is one of four sites pilgrims are encouraged to visit at least once in their lifetime.