Varanasi – by Irene Butler –
Our India Photo Galleries
Published in BC travel Writers
Varanasi. The holiest place on earth in the Hindu religion through recorded time. Shiva, the destroyer god, reigns. He resides in every inch of the city. Over 2000 temples are dedicated to him. Every Hindu tries to come at least once during their lifetime to bathe in his sacred River Ganges that flows alongside the city.
The exuberance of life bursts forth, as the two million people who call Varanasi their home, are continually bombarded with tens of thousands of pilgrims and visitors. Cremations are auspicious here. The dead are transported to the city in droves. The funeral pyres burn day and night. We have never been as close to such an abundance of life and death simultaneously as in Varanasi.
The very old and terminally ill come to spend their last days, as when you die in Shiva’s city, you are guaranteed moksha, liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. Hindus of all ages flock to Varanasi’s most prominent temple, the Vishwanath or Golden Temple. It contains one of the twelve jyotirlingas (stone phallus’s representing Shiva) that are spread throughout India. They are believed to have sprung out of the earth as shafts of light. Visiting all twelve during a lifetime is another way to achieve moksha.
The ghats, steps leading down to the riverbank, stretch along the Ganges for miles. In some places there are as many as 100 steps from top to bottom. The ghat names are in plain view, starting from Assi in the south to Raj in the north. They are the pulse of the city. All you need is your five senses and an open mind. We were both fascinated and mesmerized by the activity, and woke each day eager to hang out at the ghats.
Early morning brings out the bathers. The Ganges is nature’s tub where the locals spruce up for the day. It must take years of practice to be as adept at washing every nook and cranny while wrapped in a piece of fabric for modesty. Particularly the women can undress, bathe and fully dress again, without ever exposing any skin between the neck and knees. The visiting Hindus from near and far, are attired in their finest, as they wade waist deep into the holy water performing soul purifying rituals. Some are pilgrims, stripped to a loincloth, heads shaven except for the tail of hair at the nape of their necks. This lock of hair is something to grab hold of, if the gods should favor them and sweep down and whisk them away.
The multi-functional river is the main laundry facility. Women chatter above the irregular slapping and pounding of clothes against stone slabs. Considering the pollution level of the water, the clothing spread about on the steps to dry was surprisingly white. Above some of the ghats a 15 to 20 foot slab of cement sloped upward at a 30 degree angle to the buildings above. This prized drying area was always spread thick with clothes first. We noticed one slab was bare. As we drew nearer, we tensed. We found ourselves looking at a 20 foot high sketch in white paint of the New York World Trade Center twin towers, with a gigantic plane aimed at one of the towers. On the right were words in Hindi. Ask as we may, we could not find out what the inscription said, but felt it was a prayer of compassion in this city of spiritual power. Uncannily, this memorial was the only spot in any direction that was undisturbed; as if on another plane. A few steps away, we were immediately swept up again in the continually bustling milieu.
Children at games of cricket maneuvered up and down the steps as if they were on a level playing field. Equally amazing, were the kite flyers. They ascended and descended the steps, eyes forever upward, without ever landing on a single “patty”. Each morning and evening cows, bulls, water buffalo and goats came down the steps for watering, leaving a trail of dung. The smell was rank. I would render a guess that the fecal particles per square inch of air were extreme. I must admit, we got pretty good at being able to walk upright and still miss most of the leavings; which, I might add, were never there for long. Soon after the animals left there was a competition by dung gatherers. They mixed the droppings with straw, and placed the formed rounds to sun dry, thus transforming them into a common source of fuel.
After several balmy days, a low front moved in. A backup of warm clothes is a must in northern India during the winter months. We had prematurely given most of ours away a few weeks earlier, prompted by the heat of a more southern destination. We piled on the few layers we had left under our Gore-Tex. The temperature began to range from +5 Celsius overnight to +10 during the day. Sounds harmless, compared to our Canadian winters, but not having heated hotels puts a different perspective on the matter as there was no escape from the bone chilling air. We started walking around later and later as the temperature in our hotel room was often colder than outside. Night bonfires were blazing up and down the streets with locals huddled around. Even the goats wore sweaters.
Boats rowed up the river and were carried back down by the gentle current. For a fee they promised a panoramic view of the ghats. The river was unusually foggy each morning with the colder weather. Boatmen beckoned us.
They competed, hollering out dirt cheap prices, “Sir, boat. Only thirty rupees ($1.00 Can.) because you first customer.” “Sir, pay only twenty-five rupees – I am best price.” “Sir, you see things better from boat.”
We peered out at the vague outline of the few boats that had a load of people. They were squinting back towards the ghats, confirming our suspicion that the early fog was too thick to see through. Then the sun shone – the price quadrupled, business boomed, and the number of people filling each boat was sizable. Or would cap-sizable be the better term? We counted as many as twenty adults crammed into a boat, which appeared to be far beyond a safe capacity. Though probably unwarranted, as two non-swimmers, we decided to stick to dry land.
We found sheer bliss sitting and basking in the sun on the steps of Dasaswamedh, the main market ghat. Always milling with people from all walks of life, engaged in various undertakings; relaxing, visiting, meditating, begging, and especially – negotiating. Little leaf boats filled with flowers and food for pujas, prayers to the Hindu deities, were a popular item for purchase. We saw many sailing down the Ganges. Lots of goods for sale for mortals too – food, drink, post cards, and the cherished Varanasi silks, considered a collector’s item around the world. Hair cuts, massages, and hand readings were happening. Sadhus, ascetic Hindu holy men, congregated.
When our legs cramped from sitting, we would climb to the top of the steps to the old city. Hole-in-the-wall shops extend deep along narrow, entwined streets. Maze planners could take an aerial view of the paths behind the ghats and come away with a plan to baffle the best. Not for the claustrophobic. We often had to flatten ourselves against the wall of a building as water buffalo were herded by. Worse, were the times when a variety of beasts, including the sacred cow, came wandering down the path on their own scavenging for food in the garbage piles left by the shop owners for this purpose. The locals nonchalantly mingled with these heavy weights, giving them an occasional swat, if it was impossible to squeeze by. Wild monkeys sailed from roof top to roof top above our heads.
Only the traditional chant, ram nam sata hai” (the name of God is truth), sent everyone scurrying respectfully to the sides of the paths. Four to six males from the Dalit caste (the lowest in India’s heredity class system) carrying a dead body on a stretcher above their shoulders would pass at a jogging pace. The deceased bumped along, passing just inches from our heads, draped in silk shrouds, trimmed with gold tassels, and strewn with strings of marigolds. A white shroud signified that the deceased was a man, and saffron a woman. Male family members followed in cadence. My heart raced with each passing. No doubt a “fight or flight” adrenaline rush at such an unaccustomed ritual, coupled with the fact that I often did not know where to go to get out of the way. My partner often had to give me a yank in the right direction.
These bodies were being transported to the ghats reserved for cremations. Manikarnika Ghat is the most prominent, with many concrete pyre slabs. We counted as many as twelve cremations going on at once.
The second most important cremation ghat is Harishchandra. It is always busy, but does not have the capacity to handle as many burnings. This ghat had the funeral pyres on a sandy area by the river’s edge. It was here that we watched three cremations taking place at once from a raised, railed platform.
The pyres had been pre-stacked with sandalwood, placed in a particular fashion for stability and good air flow while burning. The bodies were brought down to the water’s edge. The covering shrouds were removed, revealing mummy-like figures bound in white cloth. Sacred water was poured over the head of the corpse from a vessel at two of the funeral gatherings. At the other, the whole stretcher was tilted and the head dipped directly into the Ganges. The tops of the bodies were doused with incense, then raised, still on the transporting stretcher, on top of the pyres. Additional wood was placed on top of the bodies. The oldest son in the family walked five times around their deceased kin before igniting the pyre from an eternal flame. Women are absent from the burnings.
“This is so,” as was told by a Hindi man.” because crying is considered bad karma.”
The closest pyre was about five feet from where we stood; the platform elevating us to eye level with the body of a tall, thin man. Our attention zeroed in on this mass of leaping flames. A strange, heavy, yet sweet odor filled the air; a mix of burning flesh unsuccessfully masked by the incense and sandalwood. We could not move. It was as if we were in a hypnotic trance. I thought of the extreme cultural difference surrounding death. Other than a brief pre-funeral viewing of the deceased, the casket is closed for the remainder of our rituals. As I looked on, I thought, no camouflaging the “ashes to ashes” here. I wondered why no one was watching his left foot; the ankle was pencil thin. I was horrified. “It’s going to fall off,” I choked.
The flames then seemed to shift to the right foot. It soon surpassed the burning stage of the left and fell first onto the sand. The Dalit attendant and one family member took up long sticks and in unison tossed the foot back onto the pyre, then proceeded to push all other loose appendages towards the middle.
“A blow to the skull releases the soul, and on a more earthly level, assures that the intense heat will not cause the head to explode,” Satya matter-of-factly explained.
I was thankful that our Hindi friend had informed us of this most important ritual before we witnessed it.
After about three hours the body was totally consumed. The ashes were sprinkled into the Ganges. What looked like a minimal amount of small pieces of bone were wrapped in a cloth and sent sailing down the river. After pouring a container of holy water on the remaining embers, the family departed.
We were unusually quiet on the walk back to our hotel that night, still dazed. Amazed at our own demeanor at having witnessed this cremation at such a close proximity, we were never repulsed, as we thought we might be. Instead we were filled with reverence and felt honored to have been allowed to witness this family’s funerary rite.
Varanasi left our senses heightened. Where ever we turned, life and death are on an equal plane. The young, the middle age, the old, and the dead are a part of every gaze up and down the ghats. Spirituality and worldly commotion intermingle. The fervor of religious ritual is almost tangible amid the kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, tastes and smells. The passage of time has not dulled our memories. We often find our thoughts floating back to the ghats, reliving our experiences; from the pleasurable and humorous to the emotionally charged. Shiva’s city remains our most mind-altering travel experience.