Varanasi: The Rich, The Poor, and The Afterlife

Trip Start Jun 14, 2010
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Of course, when one thinks of Varanasi it is of the burning ghats and the place of sacred pilgrimage. What fills the picture entirely is the laundry ghats and the bathing ghats and the wedding ghats – ghats used for all purposes, including afternoon leisure--a bit like walking an English promenade (just kidding!). 

Shortly after arrival, Nancy made the impulsive suggestion to first visit the burning ghats, those sites of Hindu cremations; so we made our way west to one of the two burning ghats – the first, for the wealthier from Indian society.  At this ghat, Manikarnika Ghat, sandalwood is used to cremate the bodies of loved ones.  Sandalwood is expensive and brought in on barges.  Since it takes approximately three hours to cremate a body, the amount of wood and expense is significant.  Also at this ghat are three hospices where the terminally ill may come to die.  I was assured by a local man that they are attended to in a caring way with spiritual counselling, guidance and such things as massage available to them as they go through the end of life experience.  There is no photography is permitted anywhere near the ghat, a rule strictly enforced.  And yet, some visitors seem to insist on trying to photograph this sacred ritual.  It puts it in context when one asks oneself the question, "How would it feel if a bunch of foreigners gate-crashed your mother's funeral and started taking photographs of her body?"  Enough said. 

Nancy and I took a seat slightly off to the side, but close to the several pyres that were burning or being prepared.  The men who have the role of keeping the pyers burning and the process in some kind of order are called doms who are considered by Indian society to be outcasts or untouchables.  This is a very hot job around the clock, with over 300 bodies burned each day.   Each body is shrouded decoratively and carried down to the Ganges River where it is doused in its holy waters before the decorative shroud is removed and the body left shrouded in linen is carried to the pyre by family members.  Placed on the pyre, additional wood is added and the eldest son touches off the tinder around the pyre with the aid of holy ghee (clarified butter) to assist the burning.  It was important to keep our Western eyes and minds open with our prejudices at bay, since it is easy to be disturbed at the sight of partially burned bodies being prodded in the flames, limbs being broken off for the fire to consume and finally, when the body was almost fully burned, a bamboo pole being used to pierce the skull to allow the deceased's spirit to go free.  As an aside, in one of those shocking moments of awareness that's difficult for us from the West to comprehend, we noticed some men standing waist deep in the shallows of the river just off the ghat whose daily role appears to be panning for any gold from the teeth of burned corpse ash that had been cast into the river.

We were informed by local people that holy men, pregnant women, people with leprosy/chicken pox, people who had been bitten by snakes, people who had committed suicide, the poor, and children under 5 are not cremated at the ghats but are floated free to decompose in the waters. 

Nancy watched one afternoon a very sad and intense ritual for a family whose baby had died.  Family members paid their respects to the baby on the ghat steps outside our hotel with tears and incense.  Even small children relatives were taken over to the baby’s body to say goodbye.  After this the mother was led to sit down with the support of female family and friends, while the baby was liftd on to the front of a boat and the men rowed off into the middle of the lake where the body was lowered over the side.  The boat returned to shore and the family made their way up the stairs back into community.  What touched Nancy was the permission ritually given for the expression of feelings, the open acknowledgement of loss, and the involvement of young children.  In our counselling experience, much of the difficulty in healing from the loss of a baby is the secrecy in which its tiny corpse is shrouded and the absence of open community ritual to help loved ones to mourn.

To Nancy it was an extremely moving and shocking visual experience.  This is another of the in-your-face’ experiences of India that involves all the human senses.  The other part that disturbed Nancy was that the burning ghats the crowds participating are only men.  We were informed that the women do their grieving prior to this stage of the ritual experience; despite our attempts at being fully open, Nancy was constantly having to resit her Western perspective as a woman that much of what happens in India is largely a man’s world.

While I sat in silent reverence at the ghat I couldn’t help but ponder what was to come for my own mother, dying back in England and who has chosen cremation over burial.  I can’t pick apart the threads of thoughts and feelings, but overall I think that just being there and watching the sacred rituals that end with the ashes being cast into the holy river Ganges was in some way comforting.  Lines from the song, “The river is flowing”, kept passing through my mind, knowing that my sister in England had, at my request, been singing the song to her over the past week.  As the Italians say, at the end of the game all of the chess pieces go back into the same box.  If there is one thing that India has taught me is that we are all always close to the earth from which we came and to which we return;  this in contrast to Western culture that sanitizes and sets death aside as something to be avoided and delayed or not discussed.

Further along the river to the east is the burning ghat for the poor, Harishchandra Ghat, which is one of the oldest ghats in Varanasi.  The devotions are just as sacred here, but the wood used is other than sandalwood to accommodate the lower income of the people who have their loved ones cremated there.  In both places the sheer number of people who are cremated each day is difficult to comprehend.  Approximately every ten minutes for twenty-four hours a day another body is brought down to be set upon a pyre for cremation.

Of course, what we were not able to witness was the elaborate sacred ceremonies preceding the body’s arrival at the ghat.  The Hindu faith adheres to cremating a loved within 24 hours of death.  During this time there are intense ritual activities including all family members; some of thes we witnessed in Rajasthan on the death of our hotel proprietor's grandfather, but we did not understand well what was happening.  Exclusive time is set aside for the men and women of the family and time later for the community to join the family in recognizing a life that was lived in the vitality of these cultures we have found in India. 
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ani on

Thank you for a well written article!

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