Varanasi – Going Up In Flames

Jane is a large round woman with an impressive chest and several chins which wobble when she laughs, which she does often. Fern is rail thin, without a single curve to her body, and wears the faintly petulant look of a woman who thinks she is not getting enough attention. They arrive at our hotel the next morning and standing next to each other they look like the number 10.

They are from New Zealand which presumably explains the name Fern and have just arrived in India.

We smile at each other and Jane says

“God, darling, I am desperate for a bottle of bubbles”

Not exactly the usual greeting from a stranger, especially at 10 in the morning, but one that suggests we might be soul mates.

I tell her that this is a very spiritual town and consequently alcohol is very limited, (although no secret is made of the fact that drugs are available on every corner. I am not sure how they explain the difference). It also happens that there is a small temple to Vishnu on the second floor of our ten room hotel so there is absolutely no chance of getting anything stronger than a coke. She looks appalled, but says she has a bottle of whiskey in her bag so she should be able to make it through the day.

They retire to their room to get ready for the days adventures. Sometime later they appear dressed to the nines. Jane is wearing a stylish black outfit “by Miyake, darling” and little gold sandals. Fern probably looks glamorous too, but is completely overshadowed by Jane, which I am sure explains the petulant look.

“Wow” I exclaim “You are looking very glamorous. What are you all dressed up for?”

“Shopping, darling. What else would we be doing” she replies. “Do you know where the shops are”
I have a sneaking suspicion that she is expecting a designer mall to be just round the corner.

I point her in the direction of the shops and suggest that open toed shoes might not be the correct footwear.

“Why on earth not” she asks, ‘besides, I have nothing else that goes with my Miyake”

And then,

“I don’t suppose you know where a good beauty shop is. We need to get our nails done”

I have no idea if rural India has such a thing as her vision of a beauty shop, but I think it extremely unlikely.

Varanasi certainly doesn’t.

In a very short time, Jane and Fern will begin to wonder what the hell they are doing here.

Hindus believe that their bodies are made up of five natural elements and that when they die they should be cremated so that the elements are released from their body and can be returned to this world. It is their devout wish that the ashes that remain after cremation should be returned to Mother India, the Ganges. For this reason many pilgrims make the journey to Varanasi in the last years of their life and remain here until they die.

Consequently Varanasi, and in particular, a ghat that is just a few hundred yards from our hotel, has become one huge crematorium. The bodies are burned on funeral pyres on the steps of the Ganges.

Everyone is welcomed to watch, even the tourists, as they see it as a sign of involvement and respect. But  photos are discouraged. The first sign that we are nearing the ghat is the enormous piles of wood that are stored in every available spot.

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the second sign is the clouds of smoke that surrounds the ghat.

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They cremate up to 10,000 bodies a month, that’s around 300 a day. The operation runs 24 hours a day.

At any given time there can be up to 15 fires burning all within a very small area. The heat is overwhelming, the smoke choking and the ash that falls all over you rather disturbing. The bodies are brought down the ghat on a kind of stretcher carried on the shoulders of the family. The body is wrapped in cloth ranging from a simple white shroud to beautifully embroidered fabrics, mainly gold in color, and covered in flowers. Sometimes the face is covered, and sometimes it is not.

The body is then dipped in the Ganges, taken out and laid on the steps while the funeral pyre is readied.

The logs of the pyre are covered in clarified butter and a mix of spices that cover the smell of the burning body. The body is then placed on top of the logs and more wood is placed carefully on top. The spouse or the eldest son carries a large bunch of straw to the pyre, lights the straw and pushes it into the wood. Within moments the flames leap out of the pyre and engulf the body. The son then takes a large stick and cracks the skull with it to release the soul.

The pyre and the body usually take around 4 hours to burn to nothing. The people working the fires are then allowed to remove any gold that remains in the ashes. This can often be quite a large amount as the women are always burned with their jewelry. The ashes are then placed in a small clay pot and handed to the family. The family will then spread the ashes on the Ganges.

The cost of the cremation has to be paid for by the family. The cost of the wood is not cheap, but families will struggle to find a way to pay for it. Wealthier families will pay for finer woods to be used on the pyre. Sandalwood is the most expensive and much favored as it burns longer and has a scent.

It is an amazing spectacle and nowhere near as gruesome as I expected. There are always crowds of people watching, some family, some not, many pilgrims and a few hardy tourists. It feels like just another stage of life that is accepted by all. The sorrow of the loss is lessened by the knowledge that the five elements have been returned to the cleansing Ganges, as they should be.

A little more disturbing is the fact that there are four groups of people who are denied this cremation. They are young children, pregnant women, people who died from a snake bite and leprosy sufferers. The bodies of these people are simply thrown into the Ganges where it is thought the river will do the same work as the flames.

But if you want to be really disturbed, take a look at the gentleman in black robes in the photo below.

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He is an Aghori monk.

The Aghori seek to reach the state of Universal Consciousness. To do this they believe they must accept all that is terrible in this world to achieve all that is wonderful. To show their acceptance, they must experience every evil they can think of.

They live at Hindu cremation grounds, bathing in the ashes of human remains. They eat human flesh, rotting food, garbage and excrement. They drink animal urine, and have sex with the dead. They eat out of bowls which they create from human skulls. That seems to cover most of it. But they go a step further by inflicting torture upon themselves to prove their immunity from pain – they actually wrap their penis and scrotum around a sword. Now that’s just going too far.

The Aghori monk in the photo is standing in front of one of the funeral pyres and our guide tells us that he is waiting for a suitably charred piece of human flesh to become available for his next snack.

We have seen enough!

Back at the hotel, 10 are waiting. Jane pounces on us the moment we arrive.

“God darling” she exclaims “We got thrown out of the hotel restaurant when we poured a little scotch into our water glasses. You have to help us”

I tell her it is just a little mistake and a dip in the Ganges will make everything right.

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