Life and death by the Varanasi ghats
Wandering and lost in the backstreets of Varanasi, I heard the faint murmur of chanting: ‘Hare Rama, Hare Rama.’ As the sound grew closer, I couldn’t work out what direction it was coming from and what its significance was. Suddenly, around the corner of the street came a great commotion: dogs ran yapping towards me, rubbish and dust swirled in the air, as the source of the chanting reveled itself as a procession of young men carrying a body, wrapped in shrouds, on their shoulders. ‘Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Shiva, Shiva,’ they repeated over and over as they bared down upon my position and forced me up against the wall, back flat against it, in order to avoid being crushed into a pulp. They were past me in a flash, a blur of holy fervor, and reached the end of the street and disappeared, as quickly as they had appeared, heading for their destination: Manikarnika ghat aka the burning ghat of Varanasi.
I had come to Varanasi eager to show my younger brother Sam – here on a short 10 day break - something that would stay with him forever; something unique to India that spoke about its history, traditions and central role that Hinduism plays in the lives of its people. Varanasi is an ancient place - the world's oldest inhabited city - located on the banks of the River Ganga (Ganges), about which the author Mark Twain once wrote 'Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and twice as old as all of them put together.'Hindu’s believe that to be cremated by the side of the Ganga in Varanasi is the ultimate achievement of their life and will result in their being removed from the karmic cycle of reincarnation. Dead bodies are brought here to be cremated from all over India, many on trains – only in India can you conceive to be allowed to transport a corpse thousands of miles by public transport! Each cremation costs the family a minimum of 5000 rupees - the price of the cheapest pile of wood - and can be much more if they are wealthy and choose to purchase sandalwood. The wood has been brought downriver on barges from the state of Bihar since ancient times; looking across the river to the opposite side I noticed its endless banks of barren earth – a desert landscape - and wondered whether it had been stripped of its forests long ago to cater for the insatiable demand for new wood. Once the body has been placed on its pyre, and the family has arranged themselves, then it is set alight and burnt for 2 – 3 hours. One would imagine the stench of burning flesh to be unbearable, however, it is cleverly masked with the aroma of sandalwood shavings which are cast into the flames by a crematorium worker. In keeping with Hindu custom, the family members are allowed to show no emotion as they watch, as this may hinder the soul from leaving the body and entering nirvana. Once the body has been burnt the skull is smashed open with a hammer to allow the release of the soul on its onward journey. Interestingly, the only bones strong enough to survive the flames are the breastbone of the male and the pelvic bone of the female. These are ground up into ashes and then cast, along with the rest of the ashes, into the Ganga, where Untouchables (low caste Hindu’s) dredge the water, hoping to find a gold tooth or something else of value. Not everyone is permitted to be cremated in Varanasi: babies, children, pregnant women and people bitten by cobras are wrapped in cloth, tied down with stones, rowed out into the middle of the river and thrown overboard to sink to the bottom; their souls are deemed unready for the highest state of nirvana and must re-enter the cycle of reincarnation.
One of Varanasi’s highlights is to take a boat along the 85 Ghats and marvel at all the activity taking place on the waterfront. After much insisting, we hired a boat for one hour, together with a boatman called Sunny to do the rowing. Boatman is misleading as Sunny, Varanasi's self-proclaimed youngest oarsmen, was 10 years old and little more than a small child. He told us he had been working the river for 2 years and he possessed incredibly strong arms and legs. He was an enthusiastic talker, always trying to please us with his stories but, as he vehemently insisted, was not after more of our money; no Sunny was honest as a hard days work; we could trust him; he was our friend: ‘you happy, me happy, mother Ganga happy, everybody happy!’ We stopped for chai on route, apparently Sunny was paying, but we insisted, and we resumed our trip, hot plastic cups of chai warming our cold fingers. Sunny told us of his love for Mother Ganga, Hinduism’s holiest river, source of divine power, and of how she blesses him everyday he rows her. He then tossed his plastic cup nonchalantly overboard, spat a large mouthful of chewed red tobacco into her body and, satisfied, pulled hard on his oars. It seemed to me a strange way of showing his love and affection for this mighty river.
Not long after, thirsty again, Sunny lent over and sank his lips into mother Ganga’s jade-green body, drank greedily from her and smacked his lips in contentment after taking his fill. ‘Sunny,’ I said, ‘aren’t you worried about all the pollution, dead bodies, human refuse that float in the Ganga?’ ‘No sir, she very clean sir; Very, very clean sir.’ I was unconvinced, but he insisted, ‘look at me sir: very, very strong sir,’ and it is true he was strong as a baby ox. For all his chat he seemed a good kid, who worked hard for his money and who had, in his own words a ‘very strong heart,’ a ‘mighty heart,’ even an ‘antique heart’!? We were not exactually sure what he meant by this, but we guessed at ‘unique heart,’ and didn’t feel like stopping his flow and correcting him.
Sunny aside, the boat ride gave an impressive depiction of life by the Varanasi ghats. We floated past the cremation ghat, where billows of smoke drifted past us in the wind, coming from pyres of burning bodies. Men carried wood and arranged new piles; family members gazed into the flames; dogs, cows and goats slumped lazily on the ground, soaking up the heat of the holy inferno. It was a very fascinating and strange experience: the cremations, six at a time, a production line sending souls on their way to nirvana, holy mother Ganga watching them as they go. As darkness slowly descended the pyres became, in my imagination, the burning of witches during the medieval inquisition, and the mourners became crowds watching intently with morbid fascination. Further down we saw Puja ceremonies, where pilgrims float flowers down the river that are believed to bring good luck to whomever release them. As the sun began to set, many birds appeared, gliding along the water. I saw a large bird of prey - a kite – swirling majestically in the breeze and a beautiful white owl sitting thoughtfully on a rock. The kite wasn’t alone that day: in the sky were hundreds of its kind, although only in name, as these kites were of the paper and string variety, and controlled from the ground by legions of excited children. The sky was full of kites of every colour and flying at every height. Later, when back in our room, we saw from the balcony children flying the kites from their rooftops all the way down the river; it looked like a large gathering of birds at sunset, fluttering and floating in the wind. Sunny told us that, in three days time, the annual kite festival would begin. He then asked us to buy him a kite, we refused, he then told us they were only 2 rupees each so we left him enough tip for 30 new ones. He was a very happy boy!
There is a strikingly large contingent of Asian tourists in Varanasi, particularly from Korea and Japan. They are here because of its reputation as a place very learned in music, where they can take lessons with expert players in, amongst others, the djembe, tabla, sitar and flute. I decided to join a class, eager to improve my djembe skills, and found a small shop, located in the circuit of small, intertwining streets hidden behind the Ghats. We sat, my fellow students and I, together in a circle, each with a drum in hand and notebook in our laps. The teacher wrote us out a rhythm which we all practiced until we were drumming in unison. He then stood, lit some incense and performed puja’s (prayers) to small gods located in a miniature temple on his shop wall. Halfway through the lesson the teacher, Kailash, would again write each of us a new rhythm, teach us, and then rise once more, light new incense and continue with puja’s. A short time into my second rhythm, I received a great shock when a huge black cow stuck his head through the curtain, took a good luck round the circle and let out, in clear pleasure, a magnificent, loud and very tuneful moooooo. It was an impressive horned beast, king of the backstreets, and, as the music teacher told me, one of his best friends - always loyal, simple and never answering back. It was a comical and poignant moment - the teacher and his cow – and I wondered whether I was looking for my friends in all the wrong places! Kailash fed it bread everyday, and in return was simply glad of its company and occasional contributions to the sounds coming from his shop.
Kailash has, as Sam correctly highlighted, one of the best jobs in the world. He works four hours a day, amongst the music he loves, surrounded by enthusiastic students and the serenity created by the incense, precious gods and his holy cow. In truth he doesn’t exactually overwork himself, but he makes enough to provide for his family and takes obvious pleasure in what he does. He is very peaceful, surrounded by a real aura of tranquility, and with skin full of the vitality of youth; this despite his increasing years. One day he told us some of his philosophy on life: how we enter and leave the world naked with no possessions, only the karma that we have accrued in our lives as the product of our deeds and actions. He told us to be honest in everything we do and think, treat others with respect and, most of all, enjoy life and don’t give energy to negative thoughts and emotions. He has been practicing yoga and meditation for more then 30 years and acknowledges the huge part it plays in keeping him happy and stress free. He is the greatest example of the benefits of a spiritual lifestyle that I have yet seen in India.