Down at the Burning Ghats

Down at the Burning Ghats

The holy river was choked with garbage. Mounds of single-use cups and plastic bags swam alongside shimmering gold fabric and clumps of human hair.

On the muddy bank, funeral pyres burned in tiered rows. Some were engulfed by leaping flames, others nothing but smoldering ashes. Bamboo stretchers supporting saffron-swathed corpses queued along the walkways, waiting for the next available fire.

Families from all over India bring deceased loved ones to this sacred site – the river Ganga as it passes through Varanasi – to participate in one if the country’s most well-known rituals: public cremation.

Even though the bodies were wrapped like extravagant gifts, the human shape was unmistakable. I thought I would feel confronted, given I had never seen a dead person before, but instead I felt achingly magnetised. An aberrant feast for the eyeballs.

In fact, I wanted to see more. I wanted to see one unwrapped. I wanted the adornments removed, the material stripped back. I wanted to see what death looked like. I wanted to see human decay.

This eagerness may sound perverted, but I think it is quite natural. Death is the one sure thing that will happen to you, yet we are taught to fear death – to recoil – which leaves an insatiate curiosity.

In the west we have funerary rituals and tradition, but ours are accompanied by a fat dose of sterility and orderliness. I was transfixed by the absolute juxtaposition of the Indian equivalent. In comparison, death seems very off limits in western culture: I have never even been to a funeral with an open casket.

To add to the contrast, there was an air of cheerfulness down at Manikarnika Ghat, or at least acceptance. This is due to the Hindu belief that being cremated in Varanasi frees the soul from the cycle of death and rebirth, achieving moksha (nirvana). Solemnity and reverence did not seem to be mandatory; for the Indians, it was business as usual.

Squatting men drank chai, and animals littered the scene scavenging for food: cows and buffalo munched wreaths of marigolds from the necks of the dead and dogs with darting eyes salivated over barbequing flesh.

Adding a dash of western reverence, I paid my silent and collective respect to the dead and their family, and adapted to my environment. The hubbub of India continued.

 A local man – Chento – struck up conversation with my friends and I and offered an impromptu tour, with the promise of an unbeatable view.

Surprisingly, this was no scam. Moments later we were perched on the outer edge of the third floor balcony of a deserted building: Chento’s favourite spot in the city. We could see the river wind into the distance (well, into the polluted haze anyway), and had a bird’s eye view of the cremations.

Chento called (literally yelled into the street) a friend, and moments later we were puffing on a joint, the mellow high reigniting our awe and appreciation of this rare experience. As day turned to night, our guide jovially explained anything we wanted to know.

“What time of day do they stop burning the bodies?”
“There is no stopping! 24 hour – full power!”

“How do we know if the Aghori asking for money are real holy men or just people faking it?”
“You know they are fake because real Aghori would never ask you for money.”

“Why are there no women around?”
“Women are not allowed. You see, this is a place of no crying. Only happy. Death is not sad here in India, death is happy.”

“Ok then…but aren’t women allowed to celebrate death too?”
“Women are too emotional. They start to cry and they cannot stop, so women are most certainly not allowed here.”

Ah, right. Simple. Seeing my friend Liz and my exasperated facial expressions, one of the guys posed another question.

“Do you swim in the river?”
“Swim in it!? I drink it!” he replied, deadly serious, and almost semi-offended.

Seeing our stunned expressions he added, “Not from the edges, from the middle! Ganga water very, very holy. Full power! Science proved it is purified. No joke!”

Not knowing how to respond, we nodded and smiled politely.

“Cows also very holy,” he said, rolling his rs. “Cow shit, verrrry holy. Even the piss. No joke.”

We weren’t in a position to debate, having no experience using cow excrement for holy purposes ourselves.

We learned that, in addition to the (apparently pure) cow shit, human shit, and every used chai cup in Varanasi, there are entire un-cremated bodies in the Ganga (another reason against drinking it, in my opinion). Cremation is for purification of the soul, and there are six bodies which are already considered pure: sadhus (priests), children under 13, pregnant women, lepers, cobra victims and animals. They are not burned; instead, rocks are tied to their corpses and they are sunk to the bottom of the river.

Dark fell, and we descended back into the fray.

Chento was apparently a good man to know down at the ghats – kind of like being friends with the DJ. We accessed areas we thought to be off limits, and stood close enough to fires for my cheeks to smart and the smoke to sting my eyeballs; close enough to hear the fizz of sizzling skin.

Close enough to see viscous liquid dripping from the heel of a bloated foot protruding from the inferno. The drip quickened into a stream, a build up of bodily fluids releasing onto the black earth. They do say we’re 70% water.

We watched the toes curl until they disintegrated. The flames ate the flesh clean off the bone. As the body’s other leg caught, it jerked violently – the final release of nerves, the final physical expression.

When the smoke and the scene became too suffocating we left to watch the nightly Aarti performance at a nearby ghat. Robe-wearing young men held flames and wove circles to represent their lives revolving around God, a Hindu ritual of worship. Boats heavy with Canon-clicking tourists floated down the river behind the stage.

Noise to my right distracted me from the dancing flames, and I glanced to see two dogs growling at each other in the shadows under the stairs we were seated on. My eyes returned to the stage, but my boyfriend’s attention stayed with the dogs.

He walked to the edge of our pavilion and peered down into the murky darkness to investigate what the two dogs were fighting to claim. He recoiled at the sight – whatever it was – and hurried to sit back down, ashen faced.

I elbowed him “What was it?”

“You don’t want to know.” He said, shaking his head. My eyes left his and darted over to the edge of the stairs, lit with curiosity.

“Seriously Mardi, leave it.”

I made to get up, but he grabbed my arm, “It’s a baby.”

“A puppy?”

“No, a baby. A human baby. A dead human baby.”

My stomach dropped like I had been punched in the gut, winded by disgust. I stole a glance and what I saw revolted me. My mind whirled with indecision on how to emotionally react.

Instinctively, I wanted to seize the body, find the police, alert others, and freak out – but of course, this would not have achieved anything. The death of this baby was known: it had received a ceremonious send off by its family, lovingly released into the holy river. Its soul had moved on, and the body, still wrapped in funeral cloth, was no longer significant.

Still, it was difficult to feel normal while a dog makes dinner out of an infant right next to you. I was uneasy, queasy and needed to leave. Chento noticed something was up, and I whispered to him what we saw.

“Oh yeah, that happens” he shrugged, nonchalant, eyes returning to the Aarti.

I tried to be all Mufasa about it, to accept that in India this was a part of the ‘circle of life’, but it was all just too weird, too disturbing. I felt sick. We excused ourselves and left.

As we walked away I stole one more glance. The dog was gone, but the little bloated body still lay in the sludge, it’s face eaten right from its head.

Cover by NR16