I am told that at this time of year morning mist in Varanasi is endemic. I am up at 6 for the dawn and this morning is no exception. At least the rain has stopped
I am here until the morning of the 5th so have enough time to hope that the weather clears enough for better photography
I am running out of Rupees so have to change some more money. I may as well leave the tour of the Ghats until later so decide to use today as a housekeeping day and to have a look at Varanasi away from the Ganges.
Incidentally, a Ghat is simply a set of steps that lead down to the river’s edge from where Indians immerse themselves in the belief that it will wash away their sins
So another ordinary day in prospect but an an extraordinary sight later in the day transforms this
The Ganges forms a lazy curve as it flows through Varanasi in the middle of this curve on the western bank are a group of Ghats and spreading further westward from these is a tangled and confusing network of tiny streets and alleys that form the area of Chowk.
The streets here dive this way and that, come to confusing “T” junctions and it is extremely easy to become lost and end up back at the river rather than towards the town as you intend. The best way of navigating is to take a compass and just keep heading east until you hid a road where auto rickshaws are allowed. There are forbidden to enter the narrow streets.
After negotiating the narrow streets it’s time for the perennial Indian battle of negotiating a fare with a rickshaw driver before the journey starts. My destination is the State Bank of India where I hope to change some Euros into Roops. The journey is I guess is about 7km. It’s north of the station where I paid R60 to come the other way on a prepaid auto. I think therefore that R80 will be fine. Asking price starts at R200. I immediately shake my head and walk away with no intention of playing the game.
Competition for western fares is fierce so another driver comes in with R150. We settle eventually on R100. I know that the amounts of money being negotiated are tiny when you convert them into our home currency but that’s not the point. A lot of people (not everyone) you encounter in India will try to cheat you. You can’t let them get away with it and if you do then the prices for tourists will rise and rise more than they should.
Deal done the driver then admits to his fellows that he has absolutely no idea where the State Bank of India is. A small debate ensues before the one who speaks a scrap of English asks me “street name”. All of my guides and maps are stored on the iphone which because it always attracts too much attention I try to conceal as much as possible. I show them the map on the screen and point to the where the bank is. This is no help whatsoever as it is highly unlikely that any of them would have seen let alone read a map. Eventually I get them to understand “corner of X and Y” and off we set.
The bank is north west of the Ghats and everything is going fine until my driver reaches the limit of the instructions he was given by his mates. You can tell because he has slowed to an unnaturally slow pace for a rickshaw driver and has taken his thumb off of the horn button. Mouth agape he is looking left and right for a bank… any bank. iphone and compass come to the rescue as his steers the rickshaw east rather than the north west he needs.
Bank found and it is the principle branch for Varanasi. Trouble is, there are no Forex facilities in this branch, I have to go to their “commercial” branch about a kilometre away. I thought it was strange that we went over a river that was not on my map.
Finding the right bank is relatively easy on foot and as it is the first working day of the new year it is simply heaving. Thankfully there is a sign “Foreign Exchange” on the opposite side of the building from the enormous queues. Most things here are not instant and after much bureaucracy and xerox copies of my passport I get my dough after about 30 minutes . If you want instant it’s called an ATM.
The main town of Varanasi is very much like any other Indian town and besides a couple of temples which I won’t bore you with there is very little to recommend it. This is a housekeeping day so I head off back to the guest house to attempt to get stuff dry from yesterday’s soaking. It’s so misty and damp beside the river that nothing is drying out.
One of the “couple” of temples I catch on the way back is close to the Ganges so it is simple to navigate back by dropping down to the river, turning left and following the river until I get to the guest house.
I mentioned yesterday that just downstream from me is Manikarnika Ghat the “burning” Ghat. I have to pass right by it and as I do there is an enormous crowd of Indians watching the proceedings.
It is considered highly auspicious to die and be cremated in Varanasi. I read somewhere that to do so releases you from the cycle of life and rebirth. Families travel from across the country with their dying relatives to allow them to live their final days in a hospice and then be cremated on the banks of the holy river.
Heads are shaved before cremation and a common sight is to see an elderly (and sometimes not so) person being shaved. Most are old but do not look especially terminal. I have the feeling that after the journey to Varanasi there is a “time” to die.
Understandably photography of the burning ghat is frowned upon so apart from a couple of images I “sneaked” from the river and my high balcony vantage point I have to paint a picture.
The Ghat is a series of three broad steps that are made of earth fronted by railings. These steps have shallow lateral ditches formed into them and there is a clearway to the left. All of this slopes down towards the river.
There is a temple behind the Ghat and all around are enormous piles of huge logs. Men are constantly driving spikes with sledgehammers into these logs to split them.
A body covered in golden yellow cloth and often garlanded with chains of blood red flowers is carried on a bamboo ladder stretcher through the narrow streets down to the Ghat. It is carried down the clearway by 4 guys who, as I read in the guide, are “Doms” or outcasts. The stretcher is then dipped in the Ganges to “purify” the body before being taken the short distance to where a “bed” of wood logs has been prepared.
The size of the bed and the type of wood is determined by the wealth of the family cremating their loved one. Different types of wood can be purchased, sandalwood being the most expensive and the weight of the wood being used is measured by large scales dotted about the Ghat. The more weight the more expensive the cremation is.
The golden cloth covering is then removed to reveal a simple white shroud tied around the corpse which is then lifted on to the log bed. I guess dependant upon the wealth of the family determines the amount of additional logs that are piled on top. The beds are formed so that space underneath can be stuffed with dry straw kindling and the whole thing is set alight.
In all as I watch 15 corpses were laid this way and cremated. The simplest pyre consists of just enough logs to lay a pitifully thin white cloth body bag onto with absolutely no top covering. The grandest is what we might call a bonfire with a body in the middle of it.
Now the nasty bit. If you are squeamish you might want to skip the next few paragraphs.
The thin body has the fire lit below it. White smoke forms around it as the wet shroud dries and begins to smoulder. Gradually at the abdomen a dark patch appears and becomes darker and darker. Dark smoke forms and flames burst through from below and creates a hole in the centre of the body. The shroud is now alight and burns away. The arms lift slowly with the heat with clawed fingers and a thin leg and foot is exposed as the shroud continues to burn. The head is covered by additional layers of cloth so by the time this has burned away the features of the face have changed to the “smiling”, blackened and wide eyed image that one sees in images of the aftermath of war. More of the body is now being exposed and as he or she is so thin the fire not sustained by body fat is beginning to die. The Doms pile on logs from wealthier pyres that have finished their job.
The bonfire with a body inside is now burning ferociously. Cows barge past the crowd to stand and bathe in the warmth. Nothing of the body can be seen within the inferno but occasionally with a dull “phut” a glob of liquid fat spits out of the side of the pyre. I make a point to move back a little.
Other bodies are burning with varying degrees of log covering. The top covering logs to one are nearly spent. The Doms use long bamboo poles to stoke the logs. A Dom uses his pole to poke into the abdomen of the half cremated corpse and to flip it over in the fire. It comes to rest hunched over in a sitting position it’s backbone clearly defined through the blackened skin.
Smoke billows everywhere and as the breeze changes it drifts over us, the crowd, stinging our eyes. The smell of wood smoke mingles with a familiar yet alien and not altogether unpleasant aroma. You have smelt something similar before. At pig or ox roasts.
I am prone on occasion to embellishment for the sake of the story but I promise faithfully that all of the above is as it happened and as I was watching not more than 10 metres away.
A grotesque but totally absorbing and unique experience.
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