The eyes have it
Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
36Trip End Jun 01, 2010
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Varanasi, on the banks of the sacred Ganges River, is the holiest of holy cities in India. Revered by Buddhists and Jains, it is the centre of the world in Hindu cosmology, and considered the oldest continually populated city in India, 4,000 years and counting.
The residing panoramic image is the skewed, staggered skyline of its warren-like quarters and temples stretched nearly 4km along a slow bend in the river, and the thousands of people that flock daily to the deep steps (ghats) that line the river's bank down to the waterline.
The steps are 20, 30 or 40 deep, flood-season dependent. Up to 60,000 walk down them each day to give praise to the sun and river at sunrise, give thanks to Krishna, Shiva, the sun and Mother Ganga at sunset, do the washing, have a chat, get a shave, haircut, massage, do some yoga, listen to a holy man preach, have a swim, catch a fish, urinate, defecate, brush one's teeth... and get cremated.
Dump the bags in a hotel room, head towards the river on an orientation amble and stumble into Manikarnika Ghat.
Initially, a pervasive, burning odour insinuates itself. A rare, rank smell, a little like no other. A short alley opens on to a charred riverbank, on to eight heavily blackened fire pits, two smouldering heaps, and a pile of neatly stacked logs awaiting ignition. A stack, roughly coffin-sized in length, and twice as deep. Manikarnika is Varanasi’s primary crematorium, 2km downstream from the smaller Harishchandra Ghat.
The 50m x 50m area has an under-sung air of efficiency about it. Long barges drift in, moor and unload logs piled thrice-gunwale high. Lumber ranges from heavy kindling to solid, deep-red hearted teak
A little tinkle-bell becomes audible, teasing and tinkling from behind a facade of timeless buildings. A murmur, muttering, then a clearer: " Rammmm, Nammmm, Sattyeeee, Rammmm, Nammmm, Sattyeeee, ...." (The name of Ram/breath is truth).
Into view a procession appears – out of a thin, dark-shadowed walking path squeezed between the buildings – led by four pall bearers, barefoot, shaggy loin-clothed, raggedy turbaned, carrying shoulder-high a makeshift bamboo latticework laden with a dead body. A shiny red and gold cloth drapes the litter. The chanting group follows behind.
It is a woman, at a guess. The form is slight. There is no bow to the frame, the bearers step easily down to the muddy bank, the char-blackened earth, the ash-greyed muddy earth, down to the river's edge, then knee-deep into the sacred water
Lift the bamboo frame and carry it halfway up the bank before laying it on the ground next to a waiting pyre. A dom bends, and without much obvious reverence, roughly unties the cord that had been holding the body to the frame. The red and gold swathe is pulled off, revealing a thin, white, mummy-like cotton covering, tightly wrapped around the corpse. Hands grab the head and feet. Rigour mortis has set in, the body does not buckle. She is lifted and placed on top of the waiting pile of logs. The swathe is tossed on top of her, the lattice frame cast over an old wall into a junk pile of bamboo bits and shiny materials that do not make it into the blazes. Minutes pass, while the white mummy lies, face up, open to the skies, waiting without impatience for the release of her soul.
Half a dozen water buffalo wander through the area. Dogs bark and play.
A goat sticks its nose close to the embers of one of the other dying fires.
The little bell tinkles again, the same rhythm, the same chant, another body arrives. Into the sacred river, into which 15 sewage outlets pump incessantly from Varanasi's old-city section. This body sinks. Why do some sink and some float?
The bell tolls again, and another body, a procession of bodies. Soon there are five or six lying side by side in the gooey grey-black mud. Clean, sparkling red amid the muck. Pyres are being erected.
Rice is sprinkled on the first body and ghee liberally poured over her. Coins are placed in her mouth.
The chief dom arrives, a thick brush of smouldering grass in his hand. He hands it to a shaven-headed chief mourner. Only chief doms, keepers of the eternal flame, may bring the spark that will light the infernos. The mourner walks, slowly, five times around the body, clockwise, deferring to the right side of the body as Hindu rituals do, one circuit for each element – earth, wind, fire, water, soul. The smoking bushel has by now caught alight and is stuffed beneath the log-pile. More kindling grass is tossed into the same thin, low gap beneath the timber.
A large Brahma cow snuffles at a piece of old material in the dumping site. Cows are revered as maternal, holy figures and it is illegal to slaughter them in most Indian states. Cows and Asian water buffalo roam unrestricted, ungoverned. Droppings litter the steps and pathways. Yet there is no stench.
It is 6pm. The sun has retired behind the tall line of old spires and rooftops. A purpleness replaces the brighter light of early dusk. The fire, which stuttered at first, has taken hold. Thick, heavy flames from within reach up, out and fold around the old woman’s outer limbs. She is not yet burning. Yet she is surely charring, shrinking, blackening. There is a faint, uncomfortable odour in the air. It is not the charged stench of burning hair, but carries a peculiar, insidious nose, not unlike the aftermath of cheap fireworks mixed with a very light twist of sprinkled of sugar.
Smoothly, unnoticeably, three other mummy wrappings now also lie on their firebeds to be.
During this brief vigil, on a quiet side step, alone, there have already been four sidled sallies. "I show you good place for photo" (at a price... photography is not permitted at the burning sites). "I show you good guest house" (at a price). "I show you (a catalogue) of drugs" (at more of a price). "I give you good boat ride" (at a price). I adopt the old tried and tested "Ah noh spk Engl", with a half-giveaway grin. They try pig-Italian, pig-Spanish. "Ah noh spk…" The pushers push off.
Now more pyres begin to flicker, some bolder than others. The fires down the bank, closest to the river, are of the cheapest wood for the lowest castes. The higher the caste, the higher up the bank, until reaching a concrete burning platform, and the highest price for the highest quality timber. Rule of thumb: the heavier the wood, the longer and hotter it burns. Absolute dissolution for absolute absolution.
The first fire has reached a searing intensity. Her liver must be boiling, the heat will have reached into the back of her eye sockets. Hands and feet would be shrivelled, blackened, charred. The fire will eat into the abdomen. Thin trails of white smoke thread into the air, blotched with bits of light grey. Ash floats, flitters, drifts. There is no visible mourning, wailing. No cheering or Irish toasts to the deceased or departed. Ritual has it that cremation in Varanasi liberates the soul. This is a time for quiet satisfaction. No more mere transference of host bodies in this, a land of reincarnation.
Only men may attend these ceremonies. The British prohibited women in the early 19th century after they could no longer stomach widows jumping into the flames of their dead husbands, in a practice of total, final devotion and immolation known as sati. And "because they cry too much", one of the male passing show cackles when I inquire.
There are now four pyres, fully ablaze. The procession bell does not stop its tinkling. More bodies arrive, are dunked, laid out, and the final available fire pits are prepared.
Three hours. That's what it takes until buckets of the Ganges douse the hot embers. The ashes are scraped up by shovel into flat bamboo baskets, placed on a junior dom's head, and carried down to the edge of the bank, to be added to the communal ash heap. One day the river will flow and flush in an annual cleansing. Traditionally, the hip bone of a woman and shoulder of a man is somehow rescued from the blaze by family, and thrown into the river, supposedly to feed the fish, continue a different circle of life.
Varanasi is hot. Very hot. Each day easily exceeds 400 Celsius. The acutely rising temperature means the monsoon rains are not far off. Another month. Mother Ganga is nearly at her lowest. Perhaps 250m across. The flat, sandy floodplain behind her extends at least a kilometre back. She will rise around 15m. And wash away, absorb, purify and free the ashes of the deceased.
Another passing body catches ones attention. The doms stagger under the weight. A large chest and stomach push the now familiar gold and red shrouds upwards. The lattice framework buckles. Down to the river. One of the family group starts a small metallic beat. Two tins. A bell, like an ice-cream cart bell, joins in. They find syncopation.
Hindus believe that being cremated in Varanasi provides a gateway to liberation from the cycle of life and death, that Varanasi is the 'crossing place’ where devotees may enter into the realms of the divine, and that gods and goddesses might use as a landing stage to visit the Earth.
To the outsider, there is some confusion concerning this fiery ritual. Some sources say if a member of the two higher castes are cremated in Varanasi, they step outside the cycle of life, and are freed from returning to earth. No such luck for the lower castes. Another interpretation posits Varanasi as so holy that all who are fed to the Ganges are liberated from earthly reincarnation.
Between all the cleansing, purification, flame and smoke are the tourists, who surreptitiously slip through the proceedings, not exactly sure of what to make of everything. Most not wanting to intrude, yet revealing an often overbearing Western curiosity, and an Eastern penchant for firing off a flash where it shouldn't be. There are dozens of row boats on the river. Most are available for hire, something peddled persistently. "Boohht, you want boooht?" And the boats arrive, filled generally with two-day drop-in types who will mostly say "I came, I saw, I left". All the boatmen know the photo rule, yet their paying passengers force them ever closer for a quick happy-snap shot of a little flame on a distant shore.
The purple sky begins to blacken, and the long shoreline lights up. Hundreds of lights reach out from multi-storey buildings, old, old buildings, casting whites and blues and hues, and yellows and shadows across the lapping river, as chants of praise and thanks waft along the breeze, and hundreds of tiny floating candles wend they way down the current, launched by many along the river’s edge.
Smoke billows intensely from one particular pyre. Was special wood used? A thick stream spires and circles up, thick, with odd, big billowing dollops of darker smoke, as if gouts of blood were erupting, boiling, letting of blackened steam. A cow chews on a discarded garland. It chews the small orange flowers off the string, as one would a kebab off a skewer. Later a goat uses the same technique. How many twine-tied intestines did it take for the local beasts to learn not to swallow the whole thing?
Somebody has mismeasured, or underpaid. A foot and lower leg stick out, beyond the end of a fire. A lot of smoke now. The breeze is light, and gently flexes the heat shimmer. Souls fill the air. I am breathing in the smoke. Am I breathing in souls? Perhaps if one dispenses with the query, there is no need for an answer.
The extended limb will not surreptitiously disappear. The fireman prods and shuffles an appropriate log. The material covering the leg and foot begins to burn. But the heat of the fire is only really reaching the calf. Soon it is blackened, charred, with a pink foot sticking up at the end. Then the flame sears. It is achingly hot. The calf flesh is gone. The tibia and fibula are silhouetted against the flame, stalks holding a purpling foot swollen to the point of bursting. Another log is moved. The foot sizzles as moisture and air escape the taught skin. It bubbles, blackens. A solitary flame spurts up from the extended limb. A foot that will not go gently into the young night. The small resistance does not last long.
But Varanasi is not about death. The cremations are only a small part of the astonishingly vibrant, ancient, city.
The rest of the shoreline is a pastel of delight, joy, ecstasy, music, colours, scents. The city is overwhelmingly concerned with this life, the afterlife, the transference of lifedom. It is a city in constant celebration of life, in constant celebration of the godhead of Mother Ganga. It is to India and Hinduism, what Jerusalem is to Christians and Jews, what Mecca is to Islam.
The riverbanks exude a bounteous exultation, as if each day were Christmas or Eid ul-Fitr. Thousands bathe daily in the holy water at sunrise and sunset, thousands attend daily religious ceremonies along the river bank. Hundreds, or thousands have followed the same paths for hundreds and thousands of years. Hundreds of little brass bells tinkle each dawn and dusk. There is an overriding sense of calm, beauty, peace, kindliness. I find myself being overwhelmed by a sense of communal bliss, submerging into an indescribable, common, sub-conscious ecstasy. I weep.
* Writing about faith and death is fraught with the danger of misconception. I have only written what I saw, heard and felt.