A floating corpse and many burning bodies.
May 18, 2008
Jul 20, 2008
Today we got to sleep in for once (7:30 for me and about 10 for the girls). We laid around for a few hours after a delicious breakfast of banana pancakes, lassi, and fresh fruit. We spent a couple more hours at an internet cafe just outside of our hotel before walking down to the main ghat. The walk took about 20 minutes. On the way, we passed through a small cremation ghat and saw the dead body of a middle-aged man floating on the riverbank. He was floating face-down. At first, I thought he was just holding his breath and bathing, but his head was moving very loosely with the waves and after about a minute, we realized the truth. Nobody seemed to care, but we were intrigued as to who the man was, and why he wasn't burned. We did not understand the process at this point, but later we found a possible explanation. Next, we walked through the Varanasi bazaar. The first thing we saw was a snake charmer sitting by the road playing a flute thing to a cobra in a basket. We had briefly seen this before in Delhi, but it was still exciting. It was a really dirty market with a muddy dirt road. There was an overwhelming amount of fabric and shoe shops, and not much in the way of souvenirs. We weren't looking to buy anything anyways (except maybe a replacement pocketknife). I was hoping to get more of a spiritual experience out of my trip to India and Nepal, and walking through markets was such a draining experience, that I was starting to get semi-dissapointed. So far, we had spent most of our free time walking around dizzying markets and in two of the holiest cities of India, Haridwar and Varanasi, we had only experienced pretty commercialized ceremonies with large audiences (and priests that try to get as much money from you as they can in Haridwar and even at Yamunotri Shrine). After walking for awhile, we went back to the river and found a rooftop cafe to have dinner. On the bright side, after more than a month here, we have still not eaten a bad meal, and this restaurant was no exception. After dinner, we went to the main cremation ghat and a man who said he worked there took us on a small tour and explained the cremation process. There were 6 or 7 fires burning in the darkening evening and each had the remains of a body in the middle. In one fire, a burning skull seared itself into my memory. Many older people come to this ghat and stay in the death houses, waiting for death and their chance to be washed and cremated on the banks of the river at Varanasi. When they die, the eldest son will get his head and face shaved, get a death certificate from the government, and present the certificate at the ghat. At this point, the family will pay for enough wood to burn the body (min 200 kilos, max 300). The wood and incense used prevents the terrible smell of burning flesh and hair, but costs a lot (somewhere around 180 Rs or $4+/ kilo according to the guide). Sandalwood is better than the wood they were using, but only the richest can afford it. Because it is considered good karma to help buy wood for others' cremations, some of the money is raised from friends of the family, etc. Our guide wanted us to contribute money for wood, and said that we could write our names on a piece of paper and the old people waiting to die would pray for us in the morning so we would have long and happy lives. This may or may not have been true, but we decided to make a small contribution if just for the information the guide gave us.