After three nights in Assi Ghat we decided to move further north to a guest house behind the Brijrama Palace Hotel near Darbhanga Ghat. The new location would allow us to be closer to two important Hindu sites in Varanasi – Kashi Vishwanath Temple, one of India’s most famous Shiva temples and Manikarnika Ghat, the city’s holiest ghat and the principal site for cremations.
The charming four-storey guest house we stayed in for the next six nights was run by the Kautilya Society, a non-profit organisation whose aim is to promote dialogue and partnerships amongst peoples and cultures from across the world. It was there that we met fellow travellers from India, Italy, France and South Korea and shared conversations over delicious home-cooked breakfasts and lunches that were included with the room charge.
From the roof-top terrace we had views of the Ganges and the mass of tightly packed buildings and apartment blocks that formed the city. It was common, particularly in the later afternoon when the air was cooler, to see boys on the roof tops flying kites. For the youth of Varanasi, the popularity and competitiveness of kite-flying was something akin to online video games. The kites were small, handmade with crepe paper and a few wooden supports, yet proved remarkably agile as they darted and dove through the skies above. The aim for each kite flyer was to bring down other kites and at the same time protect their own kite from attack.
The streets in the neighbourhoods around the guest house were a complicated tangle of narrow alleys winding their way amongst the buildings without any sense of order or urban planning. It seemed like there was no direct route to anywhere. Most of the streets appeared to be suitable only for pedestrian traffic yet motorbikes and scooters moved up and down them as well. They often defied logic in their ability to manoeuvre and negotiate the terrain, competing for space with people, cows and dogs. Sometimes there were jams, usually when someone pushing a heavily laden cart encountered a cow, but generally the traffic moved continually and, quite surprisingly, without any hint of ‘road rage’.
Walking through the narrow streets meant keeping an eye on the ground. Everywhere, the pavement was covered in cow manure, as well as the general rubbish one might expect in a large densely-populated city with a history of poor waste management. Domestic, commercial, biomedical and a variety of toxic and hazardous wastes are generally disposed of by the citizens. The waste ends up on the streets, the drains, the open spaces and waterways, causing serious problems for health and the environment. Increased urbanisation, a growing population and a rise in the consumption of goods provided by the economic boom, means Varanasi and indeed India as a whole is facing an escalating waste management problem.
After eating what I think was some contaminated food at a cafe near the guest house, I became bed ridden with persistent nausea, diarrhoea and body aches for a good 24 hours, before I was finally able to vomit. For several days afterwards I didn’t feel well enough to venture outside, so I occupied my time lying in bed, reading and making regular visits to the bathroom. Slowly my appetite returned and I was once again ready to hit the streets.
One evening after a short walk north along the river, we reached Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi’s main ‘burning ghat’. On approach we got a visual clue that we were close. Several massive piles of logs were stacked in a alternating cross-hatch arrangement by a wall next to the walkway along the ghat. Next to the piles was a large set of old metal scales used to weigh out the logs. Depending on the size of the individual, around 360 kilograms of wood is required for each cremation. All around the ghat, extending into the backstreets and on barges docked near the water’s edge were more huge piles of logs, some stacked as high as houses. They were brought down river on barges from villages closer to the Himalayan forests from where most of the wood was sourced. A continual supply was required as the cremations occurred non-stop, twenty-four hours a day. In India, something like 50 to 60 million trees are used each year as cremation fuel.
As we turned a corner on the pathway the entire ghat became visible in front of us. At least 12 funeral pyres were ablaze, lighting up the night sky and partially illuminating the ghat and the comings and goings of mourners and the workers involved with the cremations. The scene was reminiscent of paintings from medieval times depicting damnation and the fires of hell. Smoke billowed into the sky, thankfully carrying most of the fumes of burning flesh with it. Still, the air about the place was smoky and foul smelling and breathing was not particularly pleasant. Amid the fires and on the surrounding steps of the ghat there were cows, goats and dogs. The cows in particular with their calm air of detachment from the busy, noisy and quite often bizarre scenes going on around them, were I thought, a good model for how to be in such an environment.
Various Indians either working at stalls near the ghats or standing nearby would take it upon themselves to remind us not to take photographs. They were quite happy to accept donations though, particularly after divulging some information about the process. One of them claimed that two hundred cremations were performed at Manikarnika Ghat each day although the daily average over a whole year is perhaps somewhere between 80 and 100. The only other burning ghat in Varanasi is called Harish Chandra and is located further south, although it doesn’t perform nearly as many cremations as Manikarnika.
Hindus believe that being cremated in the city of Varanasi will bring salvation (moksha) from the endless cycle of death and rebirth (samsara). It’s a bit like a ‘get out of jail free card’ and it makes Varanasi the place to die. As a result, families from all over India will travel to Varanasi with their dead, or with those about to die who wish to live out their final days in the city prior to their cremation.
The Manikarnika Ghat is also a Shakti Peetha site – a revered place in Shaktism, the Hindu tradition centred around goddess worship. According to legend, when the goddess Sati, first wife of Shiva, passed away, he carried her body across the universe. Vishnu had cut the body into 52 parts and each part fell at what has become a different sacred site called a Shakti Peetha. Manikarnika Ghat is considered one of the sacred sites and the Guhyeshwari Temple that I visited in Kathmandu is another. It will probably come as no surprise that all of Sati’s body parts, despite being carried across the universe, seemed to fall exclusively in locations within India and Nepal.
At Varanasi, bodies are usually cremated within eight or nine hours of death. All cremations are recorded and death certificates prepared. When a person dies, the family will bring the body to Varanasi and six male family members will carry the body on a stretcher down to the river. A few times while we were having lunch in a restaurant or enjoying a lassi in a cafe, a body would be carried past on its way to the burning ghat. The body would be wrapped in white cloth, sometimes covered in a saffron shroud and decorated with marigolds. The stretcher bearers would chant prayers and devotional songs as they walked. It was never a slow procession. There was always a degree of urgency about it, combined with a sense of festivity and joy, perhaps because they had been granted the honour of leaving their dead at such an auspicious place.
The family would have organised and paid for space at the cremation ghat and for the services of the workers who perform the cremation. The workers come from an ethnic group known as the Dom, a low level Dalit caste who have worked at the ghats for generations. From a discreet viewing position I could see one of them, dark skinned, wearing a grubby singlet, carrying a load of sizeable logs from a set of scales on the ghats down to the pyre he was building. He would have to walk past the intense heat of cremations already underway, and then return to pick up another load, and then another.
The family would carry the body down to the water’s edge. They would remove the shroud and the flowers would be thrown into the river. Water taken from the Ganges would be poured into the mouth of the deceased for purification. They would then wait until the base of the funeral pyre had been constructed before laying the body on top. More logs would be placed to cover the body until it was virtually hidden from view. Prior to it being wrapped in a white sheet the corpse would have been rubbed down with ghee (purified butter) to aid the burning process. Once the funeral pyre was completed the head male from the family, with his head shaved and dressed in a white robe, would walk around the pyre five times. Each circuit represented the five basic elements – earth, water, fire, air and ether. He would then use a flame taken from a special sacred fire that burns day and night to light some straw buried deep in the wood. The long and slow burning process was then underway. Women from the family do not stay for the cremations as their tears are thought to inhibit the transmigration of the soul.
While the body burns, the Dom tend the flames and with long sticks push wayward limbs back into the fire. When the cremation is complete the family leaves and the ashes from the cremations are hosed off into the river.
The burning ghats are perhaps best viewed from a boat on the Ganges, twenty metres or so from shore. From such a vantage point the whole scene is on display, a bit like being at a drive-in cinema. The boats are traditional wooden craft, rowed up and down the river, often just between the two burning ghats, by a single oarsman for a ridiculously cheap price. They are a great way to view the city’s ancient skyline as well and being on the water means a break from the crowds on the ghats. One afternoon while being rowed down the river we noticed a series of large sloping walls at Pandey Ghat. The walls sloped back towards the city and were covered in large white sheets. The man rowing the boat explained that Pandey Ghat was where another ethnic group called the Dhobi or washer caste, do various laundry tasks and use the extensive flat sloping surfaces at the ghat for drying purposes.
The concept of caste is not an easy one to appreciate and it was a little disheartening to hear that the caste system still plays a significant role in the distribution of resources and opportunities in Indian society. Several Indians we spoke to said it remains embedded in the culture and that despite the fact that it doesn’t have the same vigour that it used to, they still don’t see any chance of it disappearing.