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July 6, 2020 / catherinebwrites

INDIA 21 VARANASI

The Burning Ghats

In the west we’re protected from the realities of death. Death is confined to hospitals and sanitized viewings of the corpse in a funeral parlor. In Varanasi they let it all hang out, so it’s no surprise that, we westerners view the Burning Ghats with horror and fascination. Indians view them as just part of life,

Hindus believe that cremation in Varanasi frees you from the cycle of rebirth and death caused by your karma. So, freed from karma, you are guaranteed entry to Paradise. For that reason, many Indians come to pass their last days here. But, even if you die elsewhere, you can have your body sent to Varanasi for cremation. We saw the rows of containers. It explains the sheer volume of cremations which continue day and night, every day of the year. Out of respect for the dead and their families Sunny, our guide, asked us not to take photographs.

He told us that some people cannot be cremated. Lepers, in case the smoke from their bodies might spread their disease. How scientific that is, I don’t know. Also children and pregnant women… why? Perhaps their karma is already cancelled?

The Dom light the funeral pyres and tend to the cremations. They are a subset of the Dalits, the lowest rank Hindu caste but, even within that lowest caste, the Dom hold the lowest rank.

The family of the deceased pay for the wood. The wealthy choose sandalwood, others something cheaper. Sunny insisted that the Burning Ghats were happy places because families know that their loved one is going to Paradise. But women are not allowed to attend because they will weep and wail and spoil the happy vibe. The vibe we experienced didn’t strike us as happy.

We saw a father bring the body of his dead son to the Ghat. The body was wrapped in a white sheet but the head and shoulders were visible. The son looked young, maybe nineteen or twenty. The attendant and the father brought the body to the river to wash it. The attendant then built the funeral pyre while the father sat by the body. He would wait till his son was reduced to ashes then he’d put the ashes into the Ganges. He looked broken and sad.

Meanwhile other funeral pyres were burning brightly. Then we heard a sound like an explosion. Sunny explained that this was the sound of the Dom breaking the skull of one of the bodies. The human skull is thick and difficult to burn so…

At that point we left the burning Ghats and headed back into the alleys of old Varanasi. It was an interesting, solemn and sobering experience.

“Dust to dust, ashes to ashes” as the priest says on Ash Wednesday.

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