After wandering through tight alley ways and getting lost in the maze that is Varanasi, Julia my new friend from Germany and I make our way to the Holy Ganges River. The snake is long and inevitably leads the way back towards our starting point in a somewhat coherent manner. We slowly meander with the flowing water south, moving from one Ghat to another until we stumble into a huge open market of fire wood. More firewood than I’ve ever seen stacked together in one place, all the wood awaiting their inevitable transformation into heat, smoke and ash. A self-proclaimed Brahman accosts us and before we know it, bang, we’re standing almost on top of the funeral pyre. How many tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of bodies received their last rites here before passion on – out of the karmic cycle of birth and death and into Nirvana? Hindus believe that if you are cremated here your soul is cleansed and you’re released from reincarnation, allowing the spirit to rest in eternal nirvana.
Fires burn casually everywhere. I stare dumbfounded at someone’s feet as they stick out of the flames where the rest of the body lays, rapidly becoming no more. The feet get bigger and darker, swollen with heat and pressure as if ready to explore. Further up the leg all flesh has melted away, leaving only a white bone protruding from the flames. No longer connected with muscles and tendons the legs fall to the side until one of the fire guards, from the Untouchable caste, comes over with a bamboo stick and casually tosses the feet back into the smoldering flames. Something pops and there is a geyser of liquid that shoots up from where the sternum should be. The head pokes out from the other side and is guided back into the flames. A distinct smell fills the air. I can’t quite place it. It is at once sickening and intriguing, the scent of burning human flesh. A new one for me, unlike any BBQ I’ve been to, not quite as appetizing. In fact I should probably sit…
There are at least 6 fires going at the same time. Some are embers, some ash, others just beginning to crackle to life, an all-consuming life. A steady stream of bodies are carried on bamboo ladder-like stretchers. They are first immersed into the Holy Ganges and then laid on top of a well-built pile of wood. These people obviously know how to build a good fire. Son, father, husband, brother, whoever is closest in the family hierarchy perform the last rites – a ceremony of walking around the body 5 times with lit sticks, each time blessing the forehead, and then finally igniting the kindling underneath the fire. The initial flame is always brought from the eternal-fire (kind of like the Olympic flame that never goes out) from the Shiva temple just above. No women are allowed by the burning bodies for fear they might throw themselves on the flames in their uncontrollable grief (this has obviously happened on numerous occasions). No tears are allowed. As you watch your family member become ash before your very eyes, you must remain calm and celebrate the life stoically, almost with a nonchalant attitude. At least 6 fires going at a time all day, all night, all year, nonstop. Burn baby burn. Cows and water buffalo graze the river banks, peacefully stand around looking board and occasionally fight for territory. Dogs look for scraps of meat to eat. A body is taken on a boat to the middle of the river and dumped in. Our Brahman guide tells us that there are 6 types of people who can’t get cremated here; a pregnant women, lepers, widowed wives with no children, sadhus, children, snake bite victims (specifically vipers). So the body must have been in one of those 6 categories. I wonder about the corpse sinking to the bottom of the Ganges and where they fit on the list. The boat nonchalantly makes its way back to shore. The holy river consumes all and keeps flowing. Children play in the murky water. Adults bath and wash their sins away; life and death on full public display. Nothing is sacred and everything is holy. No space to be modest or private or reserved. The unity of it all, the One that bonds us together in life and death. The person who was talking, breathing, eating, laughing… only a few short days ago, gets piled on the dry logs as they slowly catch fire and within 3 hour are no more – just ash remains for the Ganges to wash away, heat and smoke. Nothing left. How surreal it all seems. White ash keeps falling from the sky. People in a hurry unperturbed by the sights and smells pass me by. Life and death mingle, life goes on, or doesn’t.
Our Brahman ‘guide’ spots other westerners. He blesses us, so I bless him back, and then demands money for ‘the wood’. Hardly surprised by this, I pull out some money but he demands more. I give in and he rushes off to his next score. I feel that I should go but can’t pull myself away. I sit and watch the bodies burn for hours.