December 2-8, 2012. The dead are burned in Benares, on a huge ghat called Manikarnika. Two hundred on average are burned in a day, and up to three hundred during the busy times. Once I stood high up in a building near by. Looking down on the burning ghat, I counted twenty-one separate fires. And this was at a quiet time of the year. The fires burn from morning until late at night. It takes about three hours to burn a body, and costs about three thousand rupees. The wood used for each body is weighed and charged for. The bodies are carried on specially made bamboo stretchers through the narrow streets of the town and down the steps to the river, where they are dunked (stretcher, body, wrappings, cloth coverings, and all) into the river, into the sacred goddess Ganga, for purification. They are then laid out on the steps to dry in the heat of the day. After that they are placed on a pile of wood, more wood is stacked on top, ghee is added to act as an accelerant, and they are then burned to ashes.
The belief is that if you die and are cremated at Manikarnika you will escape the cycle of reincarnation and go straight to Nirvana. The river is held sacred. The town is held sacred, and Indians come from all over the country to bathe in the waters here. It’s a holy pilgrimage. If they can, the poor, the disabled and the suffering get themselves to Benares to die here, to be burned here, to escape the cycle of birth and death, and be freed from suffering. There are other burning ghats in India, and other holy cities on the Ganges, but Benares is regarded as the most sacred of all.
You are confronted with the reality of death here. There is no escaping it. Added to that our hotel was right next to the burning ghat so every time we went out we walked by it. I stopped many times and watched, taking in the truth of it. There was a fascination, and a reverence, and a curiosity, and a deepening acceptance. It was a pageant to behold, and a sacred ceremony, both at the same time. We all wanted more information, to understand the process and the ritual. For instance at one point during the burning, at the right time, a senior male member of the deceased’s family gets to beat the skull open with a big bamboo pole, to release the soul to fly free from the body. After the burning the ashes are released into the river.
There are five groups of people who are not cremated: children under thirteen, monks, and people who’ve been bitten by a cobra, because they are all considered pure already, pregnant women who are carrying a pure being, and lepers. We didn’t get a clear understanding as to why lepers aren’t burned – one theory was because the bodies smell bad when burning. Another person denied this. Those not burned are weighted and dropped deep into the middle of the river.
There is a group of families that burn the dead. The work is passed down from father to son, and has been for centuries. It is completely closed. You only get to work on the burning ghat if you are born into it. A bit like royalty really, except they are regarded as untouchables. The Burn Boss is the head of the senior family and he lives in a big mansion right next to the river.
There are enormous, truly enormous, piles of wood stacked in every available space all around the burning ghat. It is grown in plantations and is brought in by boat.
There’s an electric crematorium on a ghat further along the river. Cremations here cost about 500 rupees. It’s not used very much, and mostly by those who can’t afford wood burning at Manikarnika. People don’t like to mess with tradition.
No photo. No photo. No photo. That was the stern cry every time we walked by. In true Indian fashion we were also approached several times with the information that we could take photos. We’d just have to get permission from the Burn Boss, at which time, presumably, some money would change hands, both for the Burn Boss, and for the person who got his permission, if he actually even knew the Burn Boss, which is highly unlikely. No photo. No photo. No photo. And then we befriended a young man who we came to feel we could trust, and he took us into what appeared to be an abandoned building close by and we went high up and could look over Manikarnika and take a couple of photos. The next day we were wandering along the Ghats and stopped by a small postcard stand. There for sale were postcards of the burning ghat. Only in India.
This is a small portion of Manikarnika, the burning ghat
Some of the piles of wood tucked in amongst the buildings
Benares and the Ganga from the balcony of our hotel – photo by Don Read
A little further along the river
All of life happens on the ghats, those concrete steps and platforms that lead down to the river. It is an endless colourful carnival filling the senses: fascinating, exciting and exotic, unlike anything else. Praying and meditating, buying and selling, bathing bodies and washing clothes, sacred spiritual rituals that left us with a kind of gaping puzzlement, people just hanging out or taking an afternoon nap, families playing together, boatloads of people coming and going, goats, cows, cats, dogs, and chickens roaming freely, the buffalo man washing his herd daily, and the spectacular evening sacred ritual of Ganga Aarti.
This man was one of a group of seven or eight men, all in a row along the river, each with a concrete “washboard” doing laundry. He is washing a sari, though most of them seemed to be washing the sheets from the hotels. There was a large sloping concrete embankment covered with sheets spread out flat to dry in the sun.
Sadhus, holy men, live on the ghats, in the open, with only a small cloth “tent” covering, or umbrella, or balcony above for shelter, studying spiritual texts, meditating, waiting to be released from the cycle of reincarnation. Each has his own spot that is his home.
This man lives right here where he sits, beneath a balcony. We passed him almost every day. At night he would lie down right where he was, covering himself from head to foot with a blanket. He seemed to have some acolytes who sat with him, and perhaps brought him food. When not sleeping he was meditating or studying the sacred texts.
The main ghat, late at night, quiet. You can see two men asleep on their platform, each covered from head to foot in a blanket.
The main ghat during the day, always the busiest place, always people coming and going, by foot and by boat. It is the main entrance to the town, and the markets and shops, from the river.
Just below our hotel families live in what look like small “basement” rooms that open onto the spacious concrete “shelf” that is the top of the ghat. It is their open-air living room furnished with several wooden platforms where the kids play, where they spread out sewing projects, where they sit and chat, and help each other with various chores and activities – like hair-styling.
The Hindu ritual of Ganga Aarti is held every evening at dusk on the banks of the river at the main ghat, facing the river, a prayer and devotion to the goddess, to the Mother Ganga. It is highly stylized and choreographed, like any religious ceremony that has been performed throughout the ages. Hundreds come every night to watch and participate. It is conducted in two separate but adjacent places by the river, the same ritual, led by seven Brahmin priests in each place. Incense and candles are burned and moved in the air in stylized patterns, there is continuous live chanting and music, and bells are rung throughout. We went three times, completely enthralled, and completely welcomed by the Indian families surrounding us.
Preparing the altar on the centre platform
Lighting the candles that surround each platform
Benares, Varanasi and Kashi – three names for the same ancient town. All three names are still used. It is an amazing place. We couldn’t have imagined it. We couldn’t have imagined what a fabulous time we would have there; every day an adventure into new sights, sounds, joyous connection, and wide-eyed wonder that such a place exists. Really there is no describing it. It is India definitely, but it is also just itself, a sacred place that draws many many people seeking freedom, release, and the end of suffering. That alone brings a special energy that you cannot help but be affected by, even if it’s just the sight of all the different, unique and creative things people do in their quest to get closer to spirit. It is also recognized as a city of culture and learning, and we were lucky enough to stumble into some world class sarod, sitar and tabla music. We wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The perfect place to end our Indian odyssey.
Next post – leaving India, and a beach in Thailand to recover.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.