Burning corpses on the river

Varanasi Travel Blog

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My train into Varanasi was over three hours late!  By the time we arrived I was absolutely starving, but first was desperate for a shower since I hadn't had the chance on the boat.  I checked into a very nice Hotel Surya which is close to the train station.  When I first arrived, the guy quoted me a price that was twice the price of the most expensive room listed in my guidebook (I think because of my backpack, a lot of these places don't like backpackers).  I called another hotel and was quoted another insance price.  I went back to the desk and asked another man how much it was and was quoted a very low price thankfully, that I took right away.  I quickly took a shower and did some laundry before taking an autorickshaw down to the ghats. 

My first mission was to find a restaurant listed in my guidebook.  It was very cool because you sit on these cushions while you eat, but unfortunately it took an hour to get my food!  I had the meat fondue mostly because it was very cheap and fun.  Towards the end of my meal they seated a girl from San Francisco at my table (a common practice here, they just sit people wherever there's a space) and we compared notes for a bit. 

I then meandered throught the very confusing streets of the old city.  They are so narrow it's tight to walk through in places, but since cows and goats go through all the time you have to be very careful where you step.  But once I found the river, it's quite incredible.  People were bathing and worshipping right in the dirty water with the cows.  Kids were playing cricket on the steps and flying kites. 

When I got to the burning ghat a guy showed me around and gave me a very informative tour of the rituals.  He walked me right up to the burning corpses and I could clearly see a charred skull and someone's legs and feet catch fire.  What happens is that people come here to die to end the cycle of reincarnation.  So he showed me the old folks and invalids home right next to the burning ghat where they come so they can die here.  The bodies are dunked in the water and then all the hair is removed.  They are covered in white cloth and placed on a wooden platform that is carried down to the ghats.  Most of the bodies are decorated in orange and red with flowers and silk cloths.  Women are not allowed to come to the pyres to prevent sati, which is when widows would jump on the funeral pyres of their husbands to burn themselves alive.  The bodies are then placed on a pyre, it's location determined by their caste.  The family walks around 5 times for the five elements of earth, wind, fire, water, and spirit.  Those in the Untouchable caste are in charge of burning the bodies and loading them up with the correct amount of wood.  After two hours, only the bones are left.  At this point, the eldest male of the family takes a stick and breaks open the skull to release the spirit.  After another hour it is essentially all gone to ash, except for the ribcage in men (due to so much labor) and hipbone in women (due to childbirth) which are bones that won't burn because they are so well-built up.  These are tossed into the Ganges.

After walking through the other ghats I went back to the hotel for some goat momos at the restaurant.  This internet cafe is in the hotel too, so I plan to just stay here until my very late train (12:30am) leaves for Delhi.

smpanning says:
What an experience, you will remember this trip forever. I can't wait to hear all about it. See you Sunday.
Posted on: Jan 29, 2008
janehutt says:
Really finding this fascinating. Sounds like you are enjoying every minute of your adventure. What an experience.
Posted on: Jan 25, 2008
sideout79 says:
Burning corpses huh... sounds like you are really seeing a variety of sights! Keep posting so I can continue to live vicariously thru you :-)
Posted on: Jan 24, 2008
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