Too close to death in Varanasi

29 May

It was Friday last week, and after a ten minute walk through a tight mesh of alleys, I was a few metres away from the funeral pyres and I wanted to go back.

Narrow alleys had taken me past temples, cows, Lonely Planet recommended yoga centres and shops selling souvenirs. Every now and then I had stepped aside to let a bamboo stretcher pass. Although carefully wrapped in gold fabrics and covered with marigolds, it was always possible to make out the head. Now, the alleyway I had been following was ending and I knew it would soon empty out onto large stone steps leading down to the Ganges. Piles of logs several metres high appeared like walls of wood, separating my alley from the waterfront below. Yet, I could see ash and smoke rise in the hot, still air.

I was in Varanasi; the most sacred place for Hindus, and the most difficult to fathom as a foreigner. The sacred river Ganges, believed to absolve sin, runs as a half-moon through the city. For centuries, pilgrims have come to the stone ghats (steps) for a cleansing bath or organised for their remains to be cremated there. Daily, three to five hundred people are cremated. The cremations go on around the clock.

While the river delivers salvation to believers, tourists are advised not to follow the bathers. The caramel-coloured Ganges carries industrial chemicals from factories upstream and raw sewage. Human remains that are unable to burn are weighted to the bottom of the river. Children, sadhus (holy men) and pregnant women are considered pure and not burned before they are sunk in the river.

On the way to Manikarnika Ghat, the main cremation ground, our local guide had insisted we join him for tea and some additional information at his home. Brinj, a man about my own age and a proud Brahmin (the highest caste), led us up a flight of stairs to a plain room with a small bed in one corner. A white-haired man sat neatly on top, gently rocking while mouthing mantras. “His wife passed away and his sons don't ask about him. He does not have long left, so we take care of him. His soul will also bless us”, Brinj said.

Anyone who dies in Varanasi is said to attain moksha, enlightenment. Guesthouses for the dying around the city host a constant stream of elderly, devout Hindus who come to Varanasi with the hope of death and instant nirvana. Planes carrying coffins land weekly; wealthy Indians arrange to have their bodies sent to Varanasi. Visitors who do not expect to be able to return at the time of dying, find other solutions. South Indian women opt for shaving their heads when on a visit. At least then one part of their bodies have been burnt on the sacred banks.

Seated on a green mat on the floor, Brinj asked us to refuse the aggressive wood touts around the funeral pyres. “Do not tell them that I said that. They are 50, I am just one. Sometimes they take tourists to a dark building they say is a guesthouse for the dying, and snatch all your things. It’s a very poor area. They are the lowest caste”. In Varanasi it is still uniquely the Doms, the Untouchables that take care of the dead on the funeral pyres.

Before long, Brinj was telling us about the benefits of the caste system, which seems to have managed to survive relatively intact in India. He started diplomatically: “There are good things and bad things about the caste system. It is bad, if people can not marry if they fall in love”. But then, it went quickly downhill seen from the wide-eyed tourists seated around him. “It is good if people know their place and there is order. Let's say, if the lowest caste person is going to be a minister, all his relatives – his auntie, brother, uncle – will think, my family member is a minister, why do I have to clean the road?”

Shouldn't other people also have a chance at upwards mobility, to try to improve their lives? You take German lessons to get more work” I asked. Brinj shrugged his shoulders. “There is so much garbage in India. We need them to clean. So that is why the caste system is good,” replied the Brahmin.

The curiosity eventually drew me around the logs and down to the public cremation ground. Standing next to a pile of bamboo stretchers, I watched as mourners lowered bodies into the Ganges to purify them before lighting the pyres. Ahead, six cremation fires were already lit up. Thick, grey smoke billowed from a seventh as a bucket of water was thrown on the low heap of light grey ashes.

At the waterfront a few metres away, two bare-chested men stood waist-deep in water. The surface of the water was covered by a thick layer of ashes. “They sift through the ashes for gold and silver jewellery,” Brinj said. And the ash that remain on the ground? “Ganges wil come and take it. Every year, the river come up”. As he spoke, another family brought down a bamboo stretcher.

Cremations by the Ganges may have a sacred character for Hindus, but as a Westerner I have seldom felt more out of place. The ash that floated in the air made me feel queasy. When a stray dog did his business next to one of the heaps of ash, I gasped. The men carrying bundles of logs brought death too close. My thoughts all felt wrong. To make matters worse, I was wearing a mouth mask. Here I was, watching an intensely emotional moment for some families as a tourist attraction, and my main concern was to not breathe in any of the ash. Remembering my own pain from past funerals, I felt sad for their loss and also of the part I was now playing. Though the feeling of sadness felt slightly ironic when Brinj explained why there were no women around. “Because they tend to cry. And when the soul leaves, it will think “I am going to nirvana. Why is she crying?”.

On the train back to Delhi, the Indians I shared a compartment with asked me what I thought of Varanasi. After politely replying in positive terms, I returned the question. A man in his twenties with retro glasses told me he had been to Varanasi several times.

“Every time I go there, I bathe in the Ganges. I feel cleansed afterwards. You know, it's all a matter of faith”.

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