Woke up at about 4.30 and a took a boat ride along the Ganges. This is my first experience of this huge river. On the west bank it is lined with all the Ghats and all ready people are coming down to bathe. It is just getting light and I am in a large wooden row boat that is being rowed by a skinny boatman. When we go against the current he really struggles and and I wonder how he would cope if the boat were full. There has been a lot of rain so the river is high and covers a lot of the steps. there is a lot of mud and silt above the water mark showing where the flood waters have been. Normally you can walk the length of the ghats, but not now. There are markers on some of the buildings that show the height of the flood water from 1978 and these are 20 meters high
. Its very calm and peaceful as we slowly drift down the river. The boatman calls out the names of each Ghat as we pass by. some are magnificent old buildings that look like forts and others are just dilapidated. Some look abandoned. We pass the first of the "Burning Ghats'. The smoke drifts up from a number of funeral pyres and swirls around the old turrets of the ghat. We carry on drifting down to the last ghat and all along the way there are people bathing in the water or sitting on the edge with priests and holy men. The early morning light makes this look very calm and peaceful.
The river is a dirty brown coffee colour and is incredibly polluted. I have been given a little candle in a paper dish with flowers and incense which I light and place on the river. This is supposed to be good luck and I watch as it bobs off along the water. The boatman struggles to bring the boat around and he starts paddling upstream. We stop at the main "Burning Ghat' called Manikarnika. My boatman tells me this was named after Lord Shiva's 'mani' (crown jewels) and his consort Parvarti's "karnika (earring) fell into the river. There is a cluster of spires of the temples and there are about 8 or 9 cremation pyres burning. The smoke drifts through the old buildings almost like a shroud veiling the buildings. Most tourists sit in the boats watching the proceedings but as I am on my own my boatman pulls up to the steps and introduces me to a guide
. He invites me to follow him through the pyres and walk through the cremation area and up to a little alcove overlooking the pyres. It is dark and smoky and there is a log burning from which all the fires are lit. i am told that this fire has not been put out for hundreds of years and must be kept alight. My guide explains that there are on average 300 to 400 cremations a day and can sometimes go up to a 1000. Cremations carry on 24 hours a day. There is no smell as the wood used has a high oil content that disguises any smell. Some people use sandal wood but this is very expensive. I am told that the wealthy and higher class people have bigger pyres and are cremated closer to the water. Each body requires a minimum of 150 kg of wood. Bigger pyres can be up to 300kg of wood.
Bodies must be cremated within 24 hours of death. Once the death certificate is obtained the body is washed and completely shaved and wrapped in a white shroud. It is then strapped on to a bamboo ladder and covered in a bright red and white or gold and silver shroud and taken through the streets to the Ghat. I saw bodies strapped onto the roofs of cars, strapped on to bicycle rickshaws with members of the family perched on the side and some are carried shoulder high through the streets.
The eldest son must have his head shaved
. A barber vigorously massages oil into his hair and then shaves it with an old style cut throat razor leaving a small tuft at the back of the head. The family then take the body down to the river it it is immersed into the water. No woman are allowed to attend as they become too emotional. There is very little emotion from the men. It seems as if they have a task to do and must just carry on with it. The pyre is built while the body is in the water. Children play and catch fish nearby in the shallows. Dogs and goats scavenge around the rubbish that is strewn everywhere. Once the pyre is ready the body is taken out off the river and placed on the logs. The brightly coloured shroud is discarded and just thrown on the ground. The river banks and surrounding area are littered with these shrouds. A few more logs are placed on top and then the mourners take large plastic bags of incense and liberally sprinkle these over the body. A coal is collected from the 'eternal fire' and the pyre is lit. Once the fire is going the family departs and the rest is left to the lower caste people who attend the fires. Each body takes between 3 to 4 hours to burn. The people who look after the fires take the bamboo ladders and break them up and use the long lengths to prod and stoke the fires. I can hear the bodies sizzling as they burn but there is no smell. It is a surreal experience and my emotions are confused. i understand the process but don't understand the lack of ceremony. The smaller fires need more attention. I saw workers stab a partly cremated body, move it one side, rearrange the fires and then push the body back onto the fire
. There was no dignity. They are just doing their job. Everything is burnt except the breast bone and hip bone. Once the fire has completely burnt out the workers throw pots of water over the ashes and the large bones are thrown into the river. Once the ashes are cooled they rake through them looking for any gold or jewelery that they are entitled to keep. The ashes are then thrown into the river. Nearby men are standing waist deep in the water 'panning' with large grass baskets in case any jewelery was missed.
There is a constant hive of activity as more bodies are brought down and the process starts all over again. At any time there might be 10 to 15 pyres alight. My guide tells me that anyone can be cremated except children under 12, pregnant woman, lepers and anyone who has died of a cobra bite. (Lord Shiva is depicted with a cobra around her neck and apparently some people think that you are not dead but just in a coma).
I wander back through the fires and board my boat. It has been a very unusual experience and I am touch by watching something that has been going on for thousands of years but feel uneasy about the coldness and lack of emotion of the proceedings. It is a very sobering ritual to observe.
My boatman then paddles across the width of the river and we had back upstream. The current isn't as strong on the east bank. We pass lots of fisherman pulling in their nets. There is a lot of life in this river.
Disclaimer: In today's blog I do not mean to offend any one and mean no disrespect to any ones beliefs or religions. I am just writing about what I observed.