Got your attention! Well the cremation Ghats in Varanasi certainly had mine. Having visited this chaotic city before, I opted for a guide this time round. I had limited time and didn’t want to miss anything. Thank the Lord for Rohit, such an endearing, kind and super knowledgeable guy.
(Checkout my FaithChat with Rohit here https://youtu.be/XfOb42mYDWA )
We headed to Manikarnika Ghat, the main cremation Ghat. There were to be no photos, I was advised (fair enough). Here the pyres burn 24 hours a day with a constant stream of bodies (people) arriving to have their life’s dream realised. For Hindus, being cremated on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi is said to break the cycle of reincarnation. You are no longer a product of your karma and no longer a victim of deeds of past lives, but on a one-way ticket to heaven.
It is men only in this place. Women are deemed too emotional, too overcome with grief to be still and quiet as to not disturb the souls of the dead. Therefore, the men carry the corpse through the streets down to the Ghat and immerse the body in the river. A series of rituals unfold. The eldest man is shaved: head, face and neck. Various oils, herbs and specific fabrics are sourced and all have their place.
When the body is fully cleansed and prepared, it is placed upon 200 to 300 kilos of wood and set alight with a special flame. There is no fixed price for, it fluctuates by the minute 200-500 1000 rupee. Whatever the price, dependant on the day the family pays willingly.
I watched five corpses arrive and be prepared. I witnessed the men as the family members chatted amongst themselves and oversaw proceedings in such an official and disconnected way. I bet within their hearts the grief was screaming.
But it is for the good of the soul of their loved one. An outward calm sits upon their faces. I’m not sure I could contain my grief with such control and dignity. No girls allowed; a smart move.
The sobering realisation is that in fact I’m surrounded by death, and that that stick is a leg burning before me evaporated my feelings of admiration for the families. This prompted a quick departure to the famous Blue Lassi Cafe to collect my thoughts and process what I had just seen. In my reflection, I do admire the ritual, the steadfastness of the men and the commitment of the Hindu people to journey here to die and reach salvation. I wonder if other religions were given just one act to attain salvation would our commitment be as strong and as widespread?
I visited the Ghats just once as I felt within myself a need to respect the process that was occurring and not overstep my privilege to be part of it. The families happily allow us tourists to stop by and witness their culture and it’s up to us to do this respectfully by not making it a spectator sport.
Yours in faith,
The Unlikely Pilgrim