Varanasi - life and death!

Trip Start May 10, 2011
Trip End Apr 15, 2012

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Where I stayed
Hotel Alka

Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bit of History

So Varanasi and the "mother ganga" river as it is know is one of the holiest places in India, the Hindu people come here from all over India at sunrise and sunset to pray, bathe and give offerings (e.g flowers, candles) and they believe bathing in this water washes away a lifetime of sins. It is also a very auspicious place to die and expiring here offers liberation from the cycle of birth and death, loved ones are brought from all over India to be cremated here. There are around 80 ghats leading down to the ganges all have different history surrounding them and two of them are burning ghats where the cremations take place.

So we arrived in Varanasi off the train – had little sleep this time – everyone wakes at 6.30 and seem to make the most noise every the chai & coffee man every 30 seconds shouting at you.  So we have no choice but to wake up and it seems as soon as we do the people go back to sleep and the chai and coffee man dissapears – not amusing !

We met a girl on the train Julie travelling herself so shared a cab with her and eventually found a nice room she stayed at our hotel too, decided to get something a bit nicer after our long stay in our grubby Delhi room.  Got a great room with balcony overlooking the main ghat that has the worshipping ceremony every night at 7pm and fantasitc view along the ganges its amazing how happy a nice room can make you.  So we sat for a few beers then went for a wander.

So exploring Varanasi to get anywhere you have to walk through a huge maze of tiny lanes all covered in giant piles of cow shit not to mention huge cows & also bulls with big horns, motorbikes beeping their horn sooo loudley, people pushing giant carts of stuff, goats, monkeys, shops trying to sell you stuff and some of the most utterly digusting smells ever.  All this going on in streets no more that about 2 meters wide !

Manikarnika Ghat – The main burning cremation ghat

We walked along to the main burning ghat– this is where the bodies are cremated its very open to walk through and very normal to have tourists looking I

guess its what most people come to Varanasi to see, its our natural human curiosity to want to look.  There are plenty of touts ready to show you round anyway.

Dead bodies are brought here by the men of the family only, they are wrapped in cloth put on a stretcher and carried through the alleyways down to the ghat, the body is then bathed in the river and then they wait their turn for a space for the body to be put on.  There are several types of wood that can be used depending on how much the family can afford, sandalwood being the most expensive. The amount of wood is weight on giant scales and paid for according to the size of the body in order to have the exact amount to burn the body.  The body is placed onto the wood and the family, waits 3 hours (the time for a body to burn) and then they crack a clay pot of water and walk away not looking back.  For a man the chest bone does not fully burn and for a women her hip bones also.  The ashes are swept down into the ganges.

So basically we stood and watched this going on there are 3 bodies on stretchers waiting for a space and around 10 bodies burning, they burn around 300 bodies here a day.  It was very surreal watching the outline of the bodies on the fire, at points a guy was going around with a big stick adjusting the wood and bodies so it burned more.  The families all sitting around waiting for it to be complete.  I guess for these people in their religion it's a privilege to “expire” here not only from the religious side of it but it is also expensive for them (around 40 - 95) so for many people this is not an option, also how far can you really bring a dead body??  Who knows how far some of these people have came from.

There are five different types of people who cannot be cremated here:

  1. Holy people
  2. People bitten by poisonous snake
  3. Children under 10
  4. Women who are pregnant
  5. People with leprosy
These people have already become pure so instead their bodies are attached to a giant slab and the are dropped into the river instead of being cremated.

So after passing on all this information our seeminlgy helpful chatty guy now wanted money from us to give to the beggars in the corner towards money for wood for them when they die – he gave us good info so he got some money but he will certainly have a big pile of wood when he goes as everyone we have spoke to who has gone along have paid different amounts to the touts along there he gives you the chat about bad karma making you feel bad to part with your money too – they don’t hold back when it comes to getting cash from you!!

So a few beers with Julie and we crashed we were exhausted after the rubbish night sleep on the train too.

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