Ganga Ghats

The Ugly Mirror: Death Aplenty…

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People from Hindu community believes Ganges is a soul purifier, and thats why maybe they think if Ganga can purify souls it can clean itself too…

Shabab Khan

Shabab Khan (Senior Journalist)







BANARAS: First Visit

Varanasi is one of the most important and sacred pilgrimage destinations for a Hindu. Allegedly, it’s the place where every Hindu hopes to be when he or she dies. The belief is that death in Varanasi and cremation in the Ganges brings about freedom from the cycle of reincarnation –the Salvation.

As you can imagine, the city not only draws hordes of pilgrims seeking to purify their souls, but also a geriatric conglomerate looking to wind things down – permanently, and a fair share of domestic and foreign tourists there to watch the rituals unfold.

This was my trip to Varanasi as a tourist, I was with one my foreign clients who wished to see and experience the day to day life in Varanasi. Our first day, we got lost wandering through the alleys around the ghats. At one point, we walked by a wood factory.

Coining it a factory would be generous. Mainly, it was a bunch of dudes hacking at tree trunks on the street, topping off the massive piles of wood that towered behind them. “How random,” I thought. “All this wood in the middle of the city. In a seemingly residential area, even. Weird.” It was later, when we were told that these woods was for burning the pyre with a dead body of a Hindu.

It all made much more sense a few metres down, when the alley we were strolling on opened onto the banks of the Ganges. We had stumbled upon one of the cremation ghats (Shamshaan Ghat), where bodies are burned in public before their ashes and remains are dropped into the holy river.

This was the main one, called Mahashamshan, and the name was tough to pronounce, Manikarnika Ghat.

In front of us, a body covered in a sari lay on a funeral pyre as men began to light the pile of wood that would soon engulf the corpse in flames. Around it, a half dozen other pyres dotted the banks of the river, with remains of bodies still smouldering away. Men stood around chatting, city dwellers casually strolled by, goats milled about too, sniffing the fires in search of a few nutritional bites.

We took a seat on a staircase at a distance, observing the scene. It all seemed quite transactional. No one was visibly upset, some bodies didn’t seem to have family present – surely due to the facts, respectively, that Hindus don’t mourn the dead the way many others do (the belief is that once a person is born, he/she never dies – as such, funerals are more a matter of showing respect rather than sadness) and that bodies must be cremated a few hours after death (many family members probably can’t make it to the ceremony in time).

We did see one woman crying, but she was the only that I noticed in visible grief. From what I’ve read, women aren’t traditionally allowed to participate in a cremation. Why, you may ask? The fear is that they’ll cry. Touché.

After a while, I sensed my clothes soaking up the smoke stench and concurrently developed an unpleasant taste in my mouth, and not of the proverbial kind either. It was time to get out of there. We continued our stroll along the river, but had to walk past the area again on our way home. Another body lay on a pyre awaiting cremation, except this time, the cloth over the body’s head was lifted and a man’s pale cold face was in clear view. I had to look away, I couldn’t take it in. Every time we walked by a cremation ghat after that, I never looked for details, which is for the better given that Serrena (my Italian client) saw a half burned body simmering Terminator-style, with only the ribs, skull, and bones remaining, wrapped in a thin layer of tarred flesh. Humans are not the only ones that come to die in Varanasi.

The next day, as we were cruising down the Ganges on a boat, a dead cow floated by. Just your standard big ole’ dead COW. Behind it, the head of a goat, oh sorry… a dead goat, was poking its head out of the water. And behind that enthralling sight, throngs of people bathed in the water, washing themselves, brushing their teeth, doing laundry, praying. I later saw a dead puppy, spread out on all fours, head to the side, with its tongue on the pavements.

There seems to be a complete detachment from the filth in the river, and the city in general, amongst the locals and the pilgrims. We had seen how pathetic those religious people were, they were doing the opposite of what they were supposed to do. It was like abusing your own mother.

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