Disclaimer: this blog contains an image of a deceased male ablaze on a fire. If you are easily offended, you’d have probably stopped reading these blogs months ago…170 days in.
A dead body. It’s not too often you get the chance to see one in the flesh. Sure they appear in films and occasionally on the news and some funeral caskets may keep the lid open if you ask, but by and large our lives have passed thus far without running across that many corpses. Certainly neither of us had seen one burning.
We rose at the break of dawn on our first morning in Varanasi and jumped aboard a row boat to witness ghat life along the mighty river Ganges. Our oarsman made good headway against the flow and other craft heading up the wide brown river and we looked on as people used the river to bath, wash their laundry or practice worship. At the far end of the line of ghats (simple concrete steps that lead down into the river) was the one we all wanted to see, the cremation ghat! But other than some smoke and piles of logs, there was little to see. We headed back to shore surprised, the river appeared clean, there was little plastic and rubbish, no smells of excrement and no carcasses of any kind bobbing down the current!
We followed this with an attempt to get into the Golden temple. Now, before we go further we need a bit of the Varanasi background just to get everything in context. At some point in the past someone (we’ll guess a religious type who wanted to make money) came up with the precept that if you die in Varanasi you can escape the cycle of reincarnation, thus attracting lots of near dead people, and perhaps all their about to be benefacted, wealth with them. A similar reincarnation get out clause befalls the Golden temple and so Hindus flock here and can spend as long as 48 hours queueing to get in. Men with guns attempted to speed up our entrance and we were sent walking along the line of devotees all bearing pretty leaves and petals as it snaked its way along the maze of cow pat covered alleys for hundreds of metres. We arrived at gate two, a convergence of four alleys all with people along their length, more men with guns (though their whistles could probably do more damage) and everyone going the same way. As the jostling started to descend into full on pushing we figured an exit was definitely the politest offering we could make and battled a retreat. It was then time to bid our farewells to Dan as he headed off to Japan. The three weeks we spent together had been not only been a pleasure but in such a manic country, the additional support, motivation and extra set of arms to swat off pesky shop owners was a huge bonus. It will be a great joy reminiscing in the Ladygrove on our return!
Determined to get under the skin of the public cremations we ventured back to Manikarnika ghat the next day. Stepping over the logs and refusing requests to be lead for a better view we perched on a bench nearby. But the monsoon rains that should have passed decided to make one final go of it and it absolutely teemed down. The steep steps turned into cataracts as cascades of water gushed down the lanes, carrying everything with them. For three hours we resided under the shelter of a tarpaulin that hosted a chai wallah and snake charmer, oh, and the owner of the finest silk shop in all of Varanasi!For six days we explored the labarinth of Varanasi, the longest continuous time in any one place during almost six months on the move. Not so much because it was the best place we have been; Mike certainly took some convincing of it charms and was never keen on the wafts of fresh curd production that greeted most turns, but it did offer a certain level of ease. For one, the alleyways were actually too narrow for rickshaws and then there were all the good eats along the passageways, one of which became our daily lassi stop where we would while away a few hours on hippy cushions at low tables, read and chat with whoever was passing by. However; mothers armed with a babies begging for milk and shop owners were at their most persistent, and there was always a dank feel to the place. Finally, we ventured back to take one last glimpse of the burning bodies, and this time got the full works. Perched 50 metres away we both attempted to make out the body parts under the shroud. Clearly though, this was not close enough for Mike who made his way down to mingle with the crowd comprised only of men. Four bodies were underway, the closest of which was the most entriging. A full blaze was consuming the centre of the pyre but the ends were not so well engulfed, leaving the head and feet exposed. For ten minutes Mike looked on without interruption. The right leg then fell as the fabric which had bound it burnt through, presenting the lower limb with all the features unscathed, but a thigh with the flesh striped back like a villain from a horror film. From time to time a man tended to the fire, adding logs from the smouldering remainants of a previous occupant. The crowd chatted amungst themselves, without displaying attention to one particular pyre over another until the cremation of a younger man begun.
Our final few days in India were spent in Kushinagar, the resting place of Siddhartha Guarama – Buddha; the boy wonder who on the day of his birth walked on Lotus leaves and at the age of thirty five gained enlightenment and gave the world Buddhism. Simple temples exist on the site where he was cremated and his final resting place and a further half a dozen modern temples have since been established for pilgrims. One such, the Tibetan monastery welcomed us for two nights in their rooms that probably rank as the best we had used in India (we did have to pay for the privilege though). The small town, disconnected from the internet and traffic was a peaceful end to India, a rare treat. What a country!