Ghats of Fire and Ash in Varanasi

Nightly puja ceremony

Nightly puja ceremony

The Ganges, as well as being arguably the most spiritual entity in India, exists as a lifeblood to a huge population of the continent. It is used for: washing, cooking, bathing – both humans and animals, puja (prayer), purification of the body and soul both before and after death, and unfortunately, as an outlet for the city’s sewage and a fairly decent amount of rubbish.

With the city built on the banks of this sacred river its buildings and alleyways stretch right down to the water, descending the bank in many series of steps where pilgrims gather to bathe and make puja. These areas are the famous ghats and some are considered more important than others.

Perhaps one of the biggest draw cards of the ghats of Varanasi to the tourists’ agenda are the intriguing cremation ghats. I mean, it’s live cremation. Live in the sense of it-happens-in-front-of-your-eyes live not alive live – that would be a bit morbid (more morbid? I don’t know).

Hindus believe that Ganga is pure and purifying hence bathing in its waters can wash away the sins of the pilgrim, and to be cremated on her banks ensures salvation of the soul. The most important cremation ghat is Manikarnika and many dying and deceased Hindus make the final journey to be cremated in this special place.

Bathing Pilgrims

Bathing Pilgrims

So naturally, being totally intrigued in gruesome rituals involving bodies (I’m weird, I know) a trip to the cremation ghats was one of the first things I ticked off my Varanasi ‘to-do’ list. Having been prewarned by our guesthouse that all the people ‘volunteering at hospices’ are part of a scam we walked – very tightfistedly – down to the bigger of the two that wasn’t too far from where we were staying.

It didn’t take long before we were met with bodies. Bodies wrapped in a multitude of white sheets, and adorned with those beautiful bright orange and yellow flowers so commonplace to shrines and temples on this continent. The bodies, covered head to toe, are carried on a bamboo stretcher on the shoulders of four men and walked through the cobblestone alleyways down to the riverside, accompanied by male relatives.

Ghats of Fire and Ash in Varanasi

Small diya (votive candle) floated on the Ganges

As expected, we were approached by one of the infamous ‘volunteers’ who explained some of the process that was occurring before our very eyes. The body was being placed in the water where it would be cleansed in the Ganges. Family members would cup water to the mouth of the deceased – thus being his or her last drink on Earth – and then the body would be placed on 350kg of stacked wood that has been meticulously measured by a giant set of scales. 350kg, he assured us, was the perfect amount of wood. Enough to burn even the densest part of the body leaving no bones, but not too much as to be a waste of wood.

Sadhu in front of waiting stacks of wood

Sadhu in front of waiting stacks of wood

Family members walked around the body – but not women though. Women are not allowed close to the body. This seemingly rude observation actually has roots in the belief that those mourning must in fact be happy otherwise the soul is left with an earthly conscious and cannot move on, so to speak. As women are too emotional – his words, not mine – they cry too much and are therefore a little counter-productive to the whole process. It is also to prevent widows throwing themselves on the fire which became a bit of a popular thing to do by the 10th Century – gasp.

Anyway, I had settled myself in on the balcony of a ‘hospice’ (it was actually just an empty building, but sadly one that I think was used by people unable to afford care that just came here to wait for death) with a pretty impressive view of not just one but seven different cremation piles. And with around 300 bodies being brought here everyday I didn’t have to wait long to witness something I’d never forget.

The bodies are placed on their individual lots and set alight. It really didn’t take long for that fire to start roaring either. I watched with a gruesome fascination as the fire slowly ate away at the material wrapped around the bodies. At one point I saw a face. An actual freaking face. The big holes of the eye sockets and the shiny gleam of muscles and fat melting away. But I couldn’t look away.

Manikarnika Ghat

Manikarnika Ghat

An obvious problem I spotted early on was the fact that the body was longer than the woodpile it was laid on. As the fire got hotter this point became one of the most vivid reminders that this was in fact a body being burnt in front of me. The upper legs were starting to disappear revealing the unmistakable femur bone, yet the heat didn’t reach all the way to the feet – leaving them virtually intact.

I looked away for a moment, distracted by the wood being measured out for the next person, only to find when I looked back that the foot had disappeared. Oh my God… the legs have fallen off. I was consumed by thoughts of “does someone have to pick it up?”, “would it be a relative or an employee?”, “is this written on the job description?”.

Luckily (unluckily?) for me, I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. A man – employee – came past with a huge bamboo pole and flicked them into the fire. And as a sort of preventitive measure, I guess, he then used that pole to hit each remaining leg sharply on what used to be the calf muscle detatching it at the knee and flicking it upwards and on top of the fire in one swift movement. There were legs flying everywhere.

At this point I was mortified. I can’t even fathom what this experience would be like if I actually knew the person, let alone it being a family member.

Man bathing his water buffalos

Man bathing his water buffalos

To the right of me, wading around in the water, was a man with a type of gold-pan. A young boy explained to me that he was of a lower caste and comes here to search through the silty layers on the side of the ghat in search of any jewellery or other precious items that may have been overlooked or thrown into the water. Past him were a number of cows and goats getting their pick of the flowers that had been taken off the bodies before burning. I guess in an area of so much death life must go on.

Unsurprisingly, the walk home was fairly quiet… until we got to the main road. The noise in India is enough to remind you that there is always plenty of life in this place.

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