Shaken and stirred
Trip Start Jun 13, 2005
28Trip End Dec 05, 2005
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Varanasi, on the River Ganges, is considered by Hindus to be the most auspicious place for cremation, to the point that many people travel there to die. For those Delhi-wallahs unable to get there, an auspicious choice closer to home is Nigambodh Ghat, situated within Delhi on the bank of the Jamna, sister-river to the Ganges.
Keen to witness every aspect of Indian life first-hand, I decided it was time to come face-to-face with death, Indian-style. I left Pahar Ganj for Old Delhi and found a rickshaw-wallah to take me to Nigambodh Ghat.
Old Delhi was even more chaotic than usual: this year, the start of Ramadaan coincides with the Hindu holy period of Navratnas. The streets thronged with shoppers and temporary stalls vied for space to sell tinsel, sweetmeats and all manner of festival paraphernalia. We were in a constant traffic jam for most of the trip, side by side with horse- and bullock carts, bicycles, motorbikes, autorickshaws and trucks. The rickshaw-wallahs all stood to the left of their cycles, one hand on the handlebars, the other on the saddle, inching their rickshaws forward whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Finally, we pulled up outside the walls of the Nigambodh Ghat enclosure. The rickshaw-wallah, bless him, took a firm hold on my wrist and steered me across the busy road as if I were a child, then pointed to a pair of large, red, iron gates. Beyond the gates was a wall, around either side of which one could walk to reach the ghat and its cremation ground. I walked around the wall and came face-to-face with a group of mourners on a raised marble stage, at the centre of which lay their departed, wrapped in white cloth on a reed stretcher. On top of the cloth lay marigold garlands and fragments of glass bangles.
Aside from the mourners on that platform, many men milled around the area: they stood in groups on the path to the river or sat on the wall beside the path and chatted. I don't know whether they were mourning anybody; perhaps they were waiting for one of the several fires to reduce to ash.
One of the mourners on the platform - presumably a closed relative - was being guided through a ritual. The "guide" was not dressed like a Hindu priest - at a guess, perhaps it's cheaper for poor folk to have a crematorium employee guide them through the process, though these people didn't look destitute by any means. Anyway, this guide brought an earthenware pot from the river, filled with holy water, which the relative splashed over himself and then over the body, before circling the body three times with the pot, pouring out water as he went. He then returned to stand at the head of the stretcher, held the empty pot above his head and let it crash to the ground in front of him.
After more flowers were placed on top of the shroud, four mourners picked up the stretcher and started towards the river with the rest of the party in tow; I followed, keeping a respectful distance. No-one paid me the slightest bit of attention, which is odd anywhere in India when you're a white woman, but even odder here, since this place is nowhere near "on the tourist map", I was the only foreigner there, and also the only woman. I looked at other parties of mourners, all at different stages of the funeral process, and there was not one woman among them. I asked Akshay later why this was, and he was just as baffled as I, saying he didn't know of any rules against women attending cremations.
I followed the party along an open passageway between two large areas set out for cremations. There were several large tin roofs, each covering four rectangular pits sunk into a concrete platform. There were no walls around them and as I passed, I saw the fires to each side: some just lit, others dying embers. From amongst the embers a few bones protruded. The smell was...well, like a barbeque on which the meat has been left a little too long. It wasn't overbearing, being outdoors, but became decidedly unpleasant every time I reminded myself of its source.
The party had arrived at another marble-paved area at the top of the steps leading to the riverbank. Here, a pond has been built with a fountain at its centre and surrounded by colourful statues of the Gods. On the near side of the pond is a raised area onto which the stretcher was placed, presumably to be cleansed with holy water, though this pond water was far too clean to have come from the stinking, polluted Jamna below us.
Once cleansed, the body was returned to the cremation area; some logs were placed in a vacant pit and the body placed on top. There followed another ceremony: the head was uncovered (it was a man, younger than I'd expected); rose water and ghee were poured over his mouth; prayers were said; a stick of sandalwood was placed across his lips and his face was covered again. A large pyre was built over the body, the mourners helping to bring wood from the pile and stack it up. I hadn't seen a single tear shed during the entire procedure.
Ghee was poured over the wood and the fire was lit. The relative who had performed the ceremony turned away and ran his hand across his face: I couldn't tell whether he was wiping away sweat or tears.
Friday 7th October
Yesterday afternoon I was standing at a juice bar, enjoying a moosambi juice with the rickshaw-wallah after he'd spent another hour getting me back through the traffic to Main Bazaar. In the gutter next to me, a rat waddled past unusually slowly and I noticed a string tied to its back leg, a long section dragging behind and slowing the poor thing down.
Now, I might disagree with most people on the subject of rats - we all know how much I love them - but I'm right there with the rest of you when it comes to rabies. However, I couldn't bear to see this little thing struggling like that, and had to try to help it. Without being bitten. I grabbed the end of the string - long enough to stay out of biting distance. I was crouching down and, at ground level, saw the rubber end of a crutch, which I pulled towards the rat to distract him and give him something to sink his teeth into. The crutch was attached on the other end to a young Spaniard and his freshly-squeezed juice, but he didn't seem to mind pitching into the rescue effort.
By this time a local had crouched down next to me, and someone had tossed a knife on the ground in front of us. Between the two of us and the crutch, we managed to cut the string and narrowly avoid a very nasty looking pair of teeth; the rat scuttled off at a much healthier rate and the small crowd we'd attracted stood completely bemused by the fact that we'd bothered to rescue a RAT!
A quick shower later, I was en route to Nizamuddin's tomb. Nizamuddin was a Sufi saint who lived several centuries ago, and Muslims still flock to his tomb to pray for all number of miracles. I've been many times to the suburb of Nizamuddin, which is where Akshay lives, but this time I was going to the other side of town: the older, poorer, Muslim quarter. Every Thursday evening, Sufis sit outside the tomb with their instruments and sing: rumour has it that if you're lucky, you can see a Dervish whirl there. Though I didn't witness any whirling, I enjoyed the singing and the atmosphere was fantastic, as yesterday was the first day of Ramadaan: after sunset, all the Muslims were out in their white caps, breaking their fast in the dhabas that lined the narrow, covered alleyways leading to the tomb.
I emerged from this labyrinth after sitting a while at the tomb, pulled the scarf from my head and crossed Nizamuddin to meet Akshay at Khan Market. We grabbed takeaway coffees, drove to India Gate (a monument very closely resembling the Arc de Triomph) and walked on the lawns there, dodging popcorn and ice-cream sellers with half of Delhi and their dogs, families and lovers.
Saturday 8th October
I was sitting in bed this morning, propped against the headboard, engrossed in my book. Everything about the morning was perfectly normal - until the bed moved. Or was it moving? Yesterday's sore throat had progressed to a slight fever, congestion and that vague lack of balance that sometimes accompanies a bad head-cold. So maybe that was it. But then it moved again, and the TV wobbled on its wall-mounting - it couldn't be the head-cold. Perhaps the couple on the other side of the wall were having an energetic Saturday-morning session - but that was an external wall, so there was no couple on the other side of it. The word "earthquake" entered my head for a split second, but I passed it off as impossible: the thought was just too surreal.
I got up and looked in the toilet bowl: the water was moving. The least I could do, I thought, was get dressed, just in case. By the time I'd thrown on the nearest clothes, however, the shaking had stopped. I wanted to run downstairs and ask the manager if he'd felt the building move, but the question seemed so absurd that I was worried he'd call the narcotics bureau to take me away.
Later, when I'd almost forgotten the incident, I logged onto my travel forum to discover it really was an earthquake. Initial reports in Delhi presumed it to be a minor tremor with its epicentre just east of the city - little did we know! If we felt it here, hundreds of miles away, I can't imagine how horrific it was for those poor people in Kashmir; my only hope is that Indo-Pak relations might be improved through co-operation in the clean-up process.