Fire and electricity

Varanasi Travel Blog

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ritual mornoing bathing in the Ganges

So I left you all when I took off from Bodhgaya and set out for Varanasi (Benares), exchanging a Buddhist for a Hindu pilgrimage site

The trip was not too long, merely five hours, and although the guesthouse that I was going to stay in was extremely cheap (50 rupees per night which is app.1 euro), they did free pickups from the train station, which was really nice. My room in the guesthouse was so small that it barely fitted a bed and had about 20 cm to spare at the side for moving around.

one of the Ghats
But I guess a bed is really all one needs, so no complaints, and it made for some good jokes. Fellow guests who peeked in, or stopped by for a chat were welcomed by a happy ‘ welcome to cellblock nine’.

Benares is one of the holiest pilgrimage places in India, set on the holy Ganges to which people come to take baths, pray, and cremate the dead.

The Ganges is lined by what are called Ghats, which are basically large stairs leading to the river and from which people enter the water, make puja’s (or, if you are tourist, enter boats). There are a few ‘ burning Ghats, where bodies are continuously cremated.

the burning Ghat
The guesthouse was right above the busiest and most important burning Ghat. the idea was a bit weird at first, sleeping above what is basically an open air crematorium. But strangely enough it was not macabre at all. Death, like most other aspects of life in India is very much a public thing and open to all to watch. All day long (and night) the fires burned and people carried boddies down the little allyways to the Ghat whil chanting Ram Ram Satya He (of which the exact meaning has temporarily slipped my mind, but I will look i up).

I sat and whached the burnig go on for quite some time, while thinking about the really different take on death (and life) people had. Nobady was crying, noboy was mourning, everyone was sort of matter-of-factly about the whole thing.

Bodies were carried down to the Ganges, submerged in the river, wood was bought, a pire was built, the body was put on the pire and the whole thing was lit by a flame from an ' eternal fire' that apperently had been burning for 5000 years.

people buying offerings
The family (men only) watched until the whole body was burned (which takes about three hours, which i thought was really short), then gathered the ashes and scattered them on the ganges.

Watching this suddenly made me think of this one scene from the movie Schindlers List, where Shindler and his wife (/girlfriend?) overlook the site of a concentration camp from a hilltop seated on horses. Suddenly white stuff falls down from the sky, turning out to be ashes from the camp's ovens, where the gassed bodies are burned. This is the moment in the film where Schindler realizes that things are really not right... Allthough the situation is completely different ofcourse, it made me think of it because in Benares the smoke and ashes of burning people are constantly decending on the town, and I was standing there on some ledge overlooking the whole thing. Allthough it is strange to see all these pyres with human bodies on fire, feet falling off sometimes, half singed faces here, roasting torso's there and everybody basically breathing people-smoke all day, it is not at all gross, ugly or horrible.

worshippers, bathers and goats underneat a temple
It is what it is, like most things in India. The smoke is, however, not good for your cough.

I went for boatrides on the Ganges one early morning and one at night (also arranged for free by the hotel amazingly enough). Which was really nice. It is too bad though that the river is so polluted, since everybody uses it as an open sewer and garbage disposal.

The rest of the time i sort of wandered aimlessly through all the little allyways, running into Sadhu's (religious ascetics), priests, schoolkids, cows, goats, chickens, dogs, cats, housewives, merchants, pilgrims and tourists, giving the place a completely different feel  from Bodhgaya, not calm and peacful but electric and alive. And when i got lost and wanted to go back to cellblock nine at the end of the day, all I had to do was listen carefully untill I heard a funeral procession, and follow it almost down to the river and home I was...Ram Ram Satya he....

 

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ritual mornoing bathing in the Gan…
ritual mornoing bathing in the Ga…
one of the Ghats
one of the Ghats
the burning Ghat
the burning Ghat
people buying offerings
people buying offerings
worshippers, bathers and goats und…
worshippers, bathers and goats un…
sunset over the Ganges
sunset over the Ganges
Varanasi
photo by: rotorhead85