Saturday, March 25, 2006


It may sound like a new coffee flavour from Starbucks but for religious Hindus the ultimate goal of life is to achieve Moksha, or an escape from the endless cycle of life and rebirth. This can be achieved in several ways, like leading a good and pious life full of selfless deeds and the like, or you could take the, in my view, easy way out and be cremated at Varanasi and have your ashes scattered in the Ganges. Varanasi is the most holy place for Hindus. The city is built on an outer bend of the Ganges, which makes for great photos as you can always see the entire riverside. And it is by the river, at the ghats (steps leading into the water) which line the entire bank, that every facet of Indian life is distilled. There are, of course, the sacred, auspicious ghats where people are ceremonially cremated, there are some that are just for bathing and ablutions, there are some for just washing clothes and there is even one that seems to be exclusively for sadhus (itinerant, ascetic holy men).

The ritual cremations are the main draw for tourists, or at least those, like me, who are more than slightly interested in the morbid and macabre. The cremations must occur within 24 hours of death so there are numerous "dying houses" where the old and infirm eke out their last days. When they do finally kick the bucket they are wrapped in cloth, placed upon a bamboo stretcher, covered by a muslin shroud, topped off with a few patties of cow dung (honest!) and carried down to the cremation ghats through the narrow streets. Once there they are dipped one last time in the holy river before being placed on the pyre. The area around the cremation grounds is piled high with wood that is meticulously weighed for each pyre so that the fee, per kilo, can be calculated (everything here has a price). Then it's on the grill for 2-3 hours until the ashes can be collected and scattered. Before arriving I had been set a challenge by a friend of mine, called Anna, whom I had met in Rajasthan (an interesting girl with a disturbing penchant for livestock as she bought herself a camel in Pushkar and has lately suggested buying a cow as a useful "shield" whilst travelling the risky streets of India) of spotting 3, or more, bodies. Unfortunately it must have been a fallow period for deaths and so I didn't have the "luck" of seeing any floating in the river or being nibbled at by the resident canines like Anna did.

But along with the magical and mystical aspects of India, Varanasi also has more than its fair share of the seedy and squalid. As well as innumerable, and horribly persistent, touts offering marijuana and hash, hotel rooms, rickshaw rides, "Ayurvedic" massages, silk handicrafts and much more besides there is a lot of what I have come to call the Indian Dichotomy. For example shopkeepers and householders are punctiliously clean when it comes to their homes and little patch of pavement in front, often devoting large chunks of time to sweeping all manner of dust and rubbish towards their neighbours or onto the "common ground" of the road; but then they won't think twice about throwing litter there or spitting huge gobs of red paan onto the just-cleaned area. Similarly the Ganges is not only a holy place, but also a communal area for washing and recreation; and yet they treat it like a toilet, literally. And then there are the clothes that are washed with great effort every day by the dhobi-wallahs. Firstly I'm not sure how clean one can possibly get anything using Ganges water (one of the most polluted rivers in the world), but then they leave the clothes to dry on the dusty, cowpat-covered ghats. Somehow I'm not sure if I'll ever understand what goes through people's minds here.

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