The Burning Ghats - Life and Death on The Ganges

The Burning Ghats – Life and Death on The Ganges

Our last day in this fascinating, ancient and holy city of Varanasi was spectacular. It started with a morning of deep serenity, an afternoon of great intensity and drama and an evening of delicious dosas, conversation and fun!

One morning in the old city we had made friends with a couple of fellow travellers we met at the German Bakery with its 88 puff and pant  steps to the rooftop retaurant. They were sitting laughing at me as I emerged onto the roof still counting and panting, loudly! It was with them, Nickolai and Maria, that we shared our incredible day.

We met for an early breakfast and then took a car the 10 km to Sarnath, the tiny town where The Buddha gave his first teachings to his disciples after becoming enlightened. After the craziness and intensity of Varanasi it was lovely to wander around the  massive Dharma Chakra Stupa, dating from the third century and the exact spot where Buddha gave his first sermon and to sit on the grass. So nice to see grass! I wandered around the archeological ruins in the sunshine whilst the others were climbing up the stupa, incredulous that I was actually there!

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I was reading a wonderful book at the time, a great classic called Siddhartha by Herman Hess which recounts the tale of another young man of high caste, a Brahman (the priestly and highest caste) who sought spiritual enlightenment as an ascetic, and on his journey he met the Buddha in Sarnath. So I felt rather like Alice who stepped through the looking glass into wonderland. It was as if the book had come to life and there I was in the middle of it all, like going into a pub for a drink at home in England and finding oneself in the Rovers Return! You can deduce from that analogy that my reading habits are rather more cultural than my television viewing :-)

After touring a wonderful museum stuffed full of artefacts many thousands of years old, and paying a hawker five times the going rate for a small stone Buddha statue, it was time to return to Varanasi and a lunch of vegetable byriani and a cold beer, sitting in the sunshine overlooking the Ganges. Perfect!

Varanasi is steeped in history and holiness. All of the great sages and saints came here through the ages and it is still full of holy men, sadhus and Aghora (click here to watch a fascinating documentary about them) who have left their homes and families to live life connected to the divine.

Hindus believe that if you die in Varanasi then you attain instant liberation from samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth. No more suffering ever! The next best thing to dying here is to be cremated here so families from all over India bring the body of a loved one to be cremated on the banks of the Ganges and have their ashes scattered into the holy river. Some just bring the ashes because the Ganges itself is believed to be a form of God. This,  by the way, is the same water where the sewers also discharge effluent and people immerse themselves to attain purity, bathe and even clean their teeth!

As it was our last afternoon and having already seen the burning ghat from the water on a sun-rise boat ride, this time we walked the short distance and saw that unlike the very early morning when there were perhaps two or three cremations taking place, now there were as many as fifteen or so. We were the only westerners and we were lucky to meet a man who worked there as a sort of coordinator. We were worried to intrude too closely on such personal and sensitive events but he assured us that the mourners deem it an honour to have people at the cremation of their loved ones. No one paid us any attention at all. No cameras at the actual fires though. The picture you see of them were taken from the boat ride and using a zoom lens.

burning ghat

So there we were on a hot, sunny afternoon, in the midst of a scene like Dante’s Inferno. There were huge mountains of wood waiting to be weighed and bought by the bereaved. Dark, tall, forbidding buildings behind the ghat framed a picture that looked like a depiction of hell.

And so we walked amongst the funeral pyres. The man guiding us and explaining said things like “you see the head there?” whilst waggling his own. And yes we could see the head of a burning body. We walked so close that I felt the intense heat almost singeing my hair. We saw corpses,wrapped in gold tinselly material, the feet and head tied with red string, being carried to to their pyre, and the eldest son, dressed in a white silk dhoti with bare chest and feet, sprinkling sandalwood oil over his parent before lighting the fire with a torch from an everlasting flame, a small fire on an upper step of the ghat that is never allowed to go out.

The families (just the men are allowed to attend) sit and wait and watch through the 4 or 5 hours it takes a body to burn. All except the chest bones of men and the hip bones of women which apparently don’t disintegrate. The attendants who work here seemingly impervious to the heat and smoke and smell are of the ‘untouchable’ caste and they use sticks to push back stray hands and feet which have escaped the flames. They labour hard carrying wood, building pyres, watching over the cremation with their long stick and then quickly raking up the ashes and immediately building the next fire as bodies and mourners are waiting their turn all the time.

After it is over, the son takes a clay pot to the river, fills it with holy water and then he stands with his back to the still smouldering flames, throws the pot over his shoulder and when it breaks, that signifies that the relationship is over, the tie between parent and child is broken and the soul is free to fly. The son I saw do that looked very sad at that moment.

We walked, well clambered really (there is nothing even and neat and tidy here), up and down and all around the cremation site, led by our unofficial guide, “Come come, this way” he said at one point, and I found myself stepping over the small brown feet of a woman, the rest of whom was burning. I know this all sounds awful and distressing and unnecessary to see, and in truth the reality was unimaginable yet fascinating and even a little hypnotic.

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This wasn’t a funeral with gentle words and pretty flowers and a casket and healing tears or a  western style cremation where music plays and a velvet curtain opens for the coffin to silently and discreetly disappear. This was raw and brutal and dirty and gritty and very, very  hot and very real. Here the mourners don’t cry, this would keep the departing soul trapped, so they stand or squat on the ground, silent and they cry later.

So how did I feel? Strangely, not horrified at all. I was not frightened nor repelled in any way by this close and raw proximity to death. It felt quite natural and there was great dignity and authenticity in the process. I was surprised at my lack of emotion. And somehow, the opposite to how I imagined, is that now I feel less afraid of dying. I think it is something about the pragmatic acceptance of the cycle of life and the deep spirituality that is so much a part of India. And perhaps a phrase I heard and read a lot during this trip about various swamis and gurus “he left his body.” So there is a clear implication and complete confidence that the body has died but that the consciousness remains intact. It makes sense to me! Of course we are not our body…

Losing the physical presence of someone you love is always going to hurt. And not wishing for pain and suffering is obvious. But something deep inside me recognises that death is as natural as it is inevitable and that perhaps living in a sort of denial as we tend to do in the West perhaps doesn’t do us any favours.

As we walked around our unofficial guide told us that the three tall grim buildings that overlooked the cremation ghat were hospices. Not in the sense we think of hospices in the West, these are places where homeless, desperately poor old people who are not really sick, just old, come to wait to die. Some of them wait there to die for years, squatting on the ground waiting, the smoke and flames and soot and the smell and sight of bodies being burned every single day their companions until it is their turn. Unimaginable…..

But there was a moment of levity. An old woman appeared in the glass-less “window” of the hospice and some young teenage boys messing about on the river shouted something to her, whereupon she shook a fist and shouted back at them. We asked what they had said and he told us the boys had caught sight of her and shouted “jump jump!” and she had shouted back “You go jump in the river!” So perhaps that old lady isn’t quite ready for the hereafter yet!

My son asked if it would be possible to see inside the hospice and amazingly we could and so we climbed the outer stairs of this building from a Dickensian nightmare, worse than that, worse than scenes from Les Miserables, I can’t find words to describe its awfulness. We entered a large dark concrete chamber. There was nothing in it. Nothing. Just black, cold concrete, window openings but no glass so it must be freezing at night and in winter, no beds, tables, chairs, there was nothing. Just a couple of tiny bundles of dirty rags on the floor and the rags were women just waiting for their turn to burn.

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And that was when I was deeply moved and horrified. At home I am a volunteer every week at a most wonderful old people’s home where the residents have jacuzzi baths and art classes and a cinema and delicious food and loving care. Sometimes people ask me if it is depressing going there. No! It’s really lovely, a privilege and I know my old ladies are content. But this….oh my God. This was a living hell and yet here too is acceptance and patience and deep unwavering faith.

So there it is. A day like no other. Sights that were unimaginable. From the deep serenity and beauty of Sarnath to the starkness of death. I saw a young child in a red jumper playing in the massive piles of wood waiting to be weighed for the next batch of bodies. I saw a boy aged 14 or so, wielding a huge, heavy axe into a massive nail to split a tree trunk in half, training to join his father in a whole life of service at the burning ghat. He had no choice. His father and grandfather before him were woodcutters and so that was his destiny too. I saw a cow with a hideous huge, ugly weeping sore on her flank where she had fallen into a fire months before. I saw human ashes being raked and dogs and goats and cows wandering through all of it.

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We walked back along the river quietly and then realised that all of us were covered in bits of ash, our clothes and hair and skin. And the smell… but it wasn’t disgusting. It just was what it was.

And this being India, we finished our incredible day with a happy and delicious dinner in a tiny dosa cafe in the old city where the proud owner showed us his very ancient home behind the curtain of the cafe, and on our way home to Hotel Alka I was suddenly surrounded by laughing, merry young boys all Brahmans training to become Hindu priests and thrilled to pose for the camera!

Varanasi. I dreamed of seeing you and I will never forget you. Next stop, a stay in an ashram….