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Varanasi: A Lesson In Life

Initially the smoke takes on a dense, black hue as the flames begin to hug the peaceful corpse. Soon the skin comes alive as it cooks, blistering and bubbling under the intense heat, all remaining moisture hissing outwards. The eyeballs ignite like a gas fuelled lamp, as gradually the skull is revealed and the bodily remains become indistinguishable from the wooden logs. Welcome to Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world.

The metropolis of Shiva is the heart of Hindu culture, fed by the ventricle of the mighty Ganges; humanity in all its guises overflows both from and into the murky currents. Lessons in life take place on the riverside bathing Ghats every day, the core subject of the curriculum of course being cremation.

Initially we stayed at a guest house near Assi Ghat, one of the last Ghats to the south of the main town. This gave us a great opportunity to stroll northwards along the riverbanks, taking in everything each section had to offer. This also meant we were downstream from most of the action, and by action I mean body washing (both alive and deceased), the scattering of bodily remains, urination, defecation and plenty of laundry thrown in for good measure. A quick dip was certainly off the cards for most visitors, though the locals remain impervious and the healing properties of mother Ganga reign supreme.

Harishchandra Ghat was our first encounter with cremation and an unavoidable voyeurism sets in on upon arrival. One is free to sit and watch, and for obvious reasons photography is prohibited, but the events leave a firm visual impact on the mind. As roughly four or five pyres burned away furiously, the bereaved looked on in hope if not expectation, that the process may result in ’Moksha’, liberation for the deceased. Around us people sat on benches and watched the continual flow of burning bodies. Indian children played joyfully, goading an ’eccentric’ old woman who was singing loudly and dancing around the flames. The smell of burning flesh followed her movements to our nostrils, as dogs sniffed around in charred remains. A Caucasian family with children stood beside us and looked on. As I watched the expressions of the youngest I wondered what he was thinking and how his parents would try and help him process what he saw.

To Hazell and I, the way in which ancient Indian culture deals with death is potentially very mentally healthy. There is no attempt to avoid it or to conceal it. Where there is birth, so too must there be death, and the Ghats of Varanasi bring ones mortality into sharp focus. What is the difference between me sitting on this bench and that corpse burning a few metres away? Furthermore, my resolve to remain vegetarian was strengthened as I passed the local rotisserie dinner options; the distinction between types of burning flesh had become a little blurred. The atmosphere was lightened however by a young ice cream vendor who, standing nonchalantly at his stand was blissfully unaware as to why every foreigner was taking photos of him and smiling. A visual aid is provided for your entertainment.

Manikarnika Ghat is the main burning Ghat, a flurry of activity twenty four hours per day. We were quickly shown to a higher vantage point, where we were offered a better overview. Even in death the Hindu caste system is strictly adhered to, the cremation of those from a higher caste takes place on higher ground and the ceremony is more elaborate than those of the lower castes. Wood for the pyres is stacked high in the surrounding area and its purchase can be financially crippling for the poor. We were viewing the scene from an old hospice building, one of many which line the banks of the Ganges, housing those waiting to die in the auspicious city. As we looked on, outcasts known as doms cleared the smouldering ashes, while others built new log housing for the unending flow of dead.

Away from the water, Varanasi is an enthralling mess of tight dirty streets, bursting with activity. Clothes store hawkers clamour for your rupees, yelling in both ears, sumptuous spices tear at the nostrils as another road block of bodies prevents further movement. Then a cow starts to rear its head in an attempt to pass by as a goat watches on from the safety of a doorway, seemingly grinning at the circus act. The intensity reached breaking point as the Ganga Mahotsav festival arrived, a frenzy of light, music, ritual and all round Indian frivolity. On opening evening we were keen to get into the fray, principally to join the fun, but also to escape the battalion of spiders and ants which had moved in via a peculiar trapdoor in our room.

Puja offerings were being made at Dasaswamedh Ghat, accompanied by fire, singing and the ubiquitous bangers. ’Chai, Chai, Chai’, yelled the kettle yielding tea dispenser as we both obliged and made our way through the crowds. Tourists of all ages lined the banks and boats upon the Ganges, but the Ganga festival is far more than a tourist attraction and we felt very lucky to have chanced upon it that weekend. The most beautiful ritual is that of lining the banks and the river itself with candlelight. Young and old deposit small offerings of light, many creating various patterns such as the peace swastika. Others release small candles to drift down stream which flicker and dance on the surface of the water.

The atmosphere was warm and friendly and the Indians certainly know how to rejoice; and all, shock horror, without alcohol! The men often get a little sleazy however, and a few with busy hands tried to take a piece of Hazell home as a memento. The crush in the tiny backstreets had reached gridlock as we left the Ghats, encouraging another Indian trait, pushing you in the middle of the back from behind. I found the whole thing hilarious and the punch line to the evolving comedy came in the form of a man attempting to drive a motorbike through the middle of the throng. At times Varanasi is almost unbearable, but it heightens the senses and though renowned for death, it made us feel alive.

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