Thursday, September 4, 2008

Follow That Corpse! A Visit to the Burning Ghats.

‘Yes please what you want? Rickshaw? Silk shop? Boat? …Hashish?’ (In hushed conspiratorial tones for that last one) ‘Where you going? Hotel? Main ghat? Burning ghat?’

These questions, and variations on them, form a constant soundtrack to any tourist wandering around Varanasi. It’s how seemingly millions of young men make their living; either by acting as a guide or by earning commissions from businesses after they’ve rounded up some rich westerners willing to part with wads of rupees. They’re incredibly persistent, and notoriously greedy when it comes time to pay for whatever service they have provided. They really can make a walk around the streets unpleasant, and are best avoided.

So when it came time to visit the burning (cremation) ghat, we didn’t take up any offers to guide us there, instead attempting to navigate the tangled alleys that sprawl between the buildings crowding the riverside. There aren’t any useful maps of the alleyways; they’re a cartographic nightmare and any sane mapmaker would just stick to producing purposely-inaccurate maps of the Indian countryside (apparently designed to confuse potential invaders.) The alleys dogleg about as they dodge the buildings, which are so tall that you can’t see any distant landmarks. There aren’t any street signs, and I’m pretty sure the roads don’t have names anyway. Plus it’s noisy, with motorbikes honking and weaving at incredible speeds. And of course it stinks, with all the cows and dogs about.


In the heat of midday we wandered for a sweaty hour or so in what we thought was the vicinity of the cremation ghat. Outside of monsoon season, it would have been a simple case of walking along the water’s edge to our goal, but the high level of the river meant that the riverside pathways were metres underwater. It became obvious that we were never going to find the ghat, and we decided to return to the main road, which feeds pedestrians and bikes into the unnavigable concrete maze we were now lost in.

Back on the main road, in desperation, we looked at a map. While Angie was tracing her finger pointlessly around the page, six men trotted past us, a bamboo stretcher on their shoulders. On the stretcher, wrapped up like an extremely morbid Christmas gift was what was obviously a corpse. It was covered with shimmering fabric, with bright garlands and fluttering tinsel wrapped around the outline of a body. There was only one place this package was going, and we set off after it, our colourful, yet inanimate guide to the ghat.

Back in the tangle, we soon lost our guide. The many bends, corners and anonymous forks of the streetscape, along with the crowd, meant keeping up was impossible. We sat and had a drink, wondering what to do. Soon enough, another gaily festooned cadaver bounced past, and we were on our way again. Sure enough, we soon lost it, but we had the hang of it now. We’d follow the stretcher for as long as we could, then wait patiently until another passed us, when we would begin moving again. In this fashion we soon made it to the ghat. As we neared it, we could tell it was close thanks to the smoke and ash that floated thick in the air.

Sometimes they don't get burnt

Following a crowd, we neared the water’s edge, where a pyre had been built and the wrapped form of a corpse freshly dipped in the Ganges sat atop it. We watched as a man walked around the pile of wood, lighting the straw underneath with a pile of coals held in a handful of hay. The fire was slow to start, and various family members poured ghee (clarified butter) on the now unwrapped body, threw offerings of cigarettes into the fire and took photos. It seemed to be a mostly male affair, and it was all very casual. People weren’t dressed up, and a crowd of onlookers were free to watch. As the fire really got going, we saw some of the rather gruesome things that extreme heat does to skin and flesh.

Apparently this operation runs twenty-four hours a day. This ghat is the most auspicious place a Hindu can be cremated, which explains the high volume of bodies being run through the streets. Awash in smoke and ash from the fire we watched for a while, then left, a little disturbed, but glad to have seen another facet of this unique river.

The ghat at night

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