Varanasi and too many corpses

We spent a day in Lucknow, which gave us just long enough to visit ‘The Residency’, the scene of the Indian Mutiny in 1875. All 3000 of Lucknow’s British occupants and anyone else opposed to the Indian independence movement fled there and sheltered in the basements. 2000 of them perished. So many people died at once that they dug mass graves around the church. Then the church was blown to smithereens by cannons.

There wasn’t as much left of the buildings as I had imagined- I had pictured a great Victorian house with a few bullet holes in it, dust covers over Victorian chaise longues like at Miss Haversham‘s. In fact it was less intact than many roman ruins I’ve seen. There were a lot of bullet holes though, so I got that bit right.

The most interesting feature was the chipmunks. They had the run of the place, and peered at the tourists with distaste.

Our ride to Varanasi was very wet. The rain started by ‘blattering‘, and quickly moved on to ‘bucketing‘, with ‘sheeting’ straight afterwards. My saddle-sores had their own personal saddle-sores on their behinds.

The ride into Varanasi centre could neatly have been packaged for tourists as an exciting suicide mission. There was certainly no room for boredom. We span around and around trying to find the right ghat. I tried hard not to panic. Billions of tourists, village mourners, pilgrims and Saddhus filed past us, trying to avoid the enormous cows blocking the galis. (‘Galis’ is the name given to Varanasi’s alleyways. Fittingly, it is quite similar to the word for ‘bollocks’.)
We parked up, and were instantly surrounded.


Varanasi is the spiritual centre of India. The Ganges flow past 80 separate ghats (steps down to the river). The ghats are mostly used by pilgrims to bathe in its purifying water. Some of them, however, are used for cremations. Certain pre-purified bodies have no need for cremation and are tipped directly into the river, upstream from many bathing ghats. Along the river, over 30 sewage works pump straight into the gurgling stew.

The water apparently contains 1.5 million faecal bacteria per 100ml. In water safe for bathing the number needs to be less than 500.

After we arrived, we wandered down to the ghats for an evening stroll. We watched a corpse engulfed in flames, his skull clearly visible. Later I dreamt about him.

We chanced upon a Ganga Puja ceremony, when temple priests offer fire sacrifices to the Ganga in a highly ritualized ceremony. There were entire villages of people in town for cremations, watching from the sidelines. Inbetween them, beggars, Saddhus, and beggars imitating Saddhus, wandered about looking for alms. A priest provided haunting Hindu chanting and tabla music.
We chartered a rowing boat and slowly swam past the ghats in the early morning the next day.

The bathers were plentiful and varied. I wanted to distribute hygiene leaflets, but didn’t think it would go down too well.

The ballooning, skinless corpse of a buffalo floated past us. (Adam said it smelt like his old fish tank. This worried me.)

A dead dog was having its back pecked off by a crow. It bobbed in a relaxed fashion.

Some small boys leapt off the top of the steps.

People use the water for every conceivable purpose.  Saddhus perform Pujas next to it, women wash saris, children leap about, and every generation splashes about in it.
The water of the Ganga purifies and heals. Many ill people travel enormous distances to heal themselves here. We watched a very old ill-looking lady with a shaved head submerse herself in the grime. She had a drip attachment on her hand, and submerged that as well.

There is a more sober side to Varanasi. It is believed that to be brought here at the time of death guarantees a certain entrance to Nirvana. 
There are three burning ghats along the river. 

Cremations are public and not very ceremonious. There are often three or more cremations happening simultaneously, as the bodies must be cremated within 24 hours in India, and there is enormous call for the burning ghats here.

As we wandered past, a priest raked through the ashes of one cremation whilst family members looked on. He found a charred hand in the ashes, and picked it up with sticks to drop in the river. There was no visible reaction from any on-lookers.

We saw a man’s face emerging from one end of another pyre. He looked serene. At the other end his foot fell off, charred. It dropped to the ground and someone pushed it back into the flames.

A crowd had gathered by a small ghat. A body, covered with ceremonial pink silks, was lowered into a rowing boat and weighed down with sandbags. Three men rowed out to the centre of the Ganges. Suddenly, quite without warning, one of the men stood up and tipped the body into the water. They rowed back to the shore.

The cremation ghats, despite being macabre and strange, were peaceful places. There was a still atmosphere. There was no outward, dramatic display of grief. It was part of life.

Walking past extended families bathing gave me an unnerving sense of mortality. All the young kids, splashing about, would wrinkle and age, and become the old generation of quiet, unflappable bathers. Then in turn they would be the bodies on the pyres.

I tried to think of an equivalent cultural experience in England.  I failed.  Adam suggested tea and crumpets, but somehow I don’t think that quite cuts it.

Before we left, as we strolled back in the evening, we watched a group of young trainee monks play cricket on the ghat-side. The ball often ended up in the water.

We left Varanasi the next day.  I wanted to stay.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Say hello. It makes us happy. Ta, Nicky. x

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.