Varanasi… I will return to these stairs one day, where the burning souls rise to the heavens.
The bodies are washed in the Ganges, then wrapped in white sheets and set on fire. As the flames eat their way from the legs to the head, a big cloud of smoke emerges. The bystanders observe the ceremony, tears in their eyes, grief haunting their faces.
The bitter sweet stench of burning flesh makes me nauseous. The smell stirs up childhood memories. My father standing at the gas stove, a gleaming iron rod in his hand. The pointed end is red from the heat as he holds into the blue flame. He pierces the skin with the metal tip, a thin string of smoke rises as it burns the leather. A stern look on his face, concentrating, he wiggled the rod, to enlarge the wound. He softly blew on the belt to cool it down and handed it to me. I strapped it around my waist and inserted the pin into the new hole. My father looks satisfied. My new belt is tight enough now.
Varanasi… where the holy cows are like stray dogs. They wander the streets along the banks of the Ganges, bathe in the sun, chewing their lunch for the third time. I was sitting on the steps near the Nepalese temple, when an opulent black cow jogged past me. Her unhappy owner came running after her, holding down his turban with one hand and waving wildly with the other. They came back a few minutes later, the owner looked satisfied while the tamed beast’s face was marked with shame. Another cow strolled across the main square, then came to a sudden halt. A big gush of yellow liquid escaped its bladder and then it continued its walk as if nothing happened.
I had come to Varanasi on an overnight train from New Delhi. When I woke up, I realized my hand bag had been stolen, although I was cuddling it in my sleep. I filed a complaint at the train station’s police office. An officer there, with stunning green eyes wrote down my statement, with more spelling and grammar mistakes than I cared to correct. I had given up hope of retrieving my belongings the minute I walked into the bustling precinct.
Feeling vulnerable and ashamed, I sat by the Ganges river. Next to me sat a man wearing nothing but a white cloth covering his private parts and a long string with a religious meaning wrapped around his torso. He offered me a glass of chai, the milky Indian spice tea.
A few minutes later, a teenage boy approached me and asked me why I looked so sad. His name was Vinay. He was rather small and thin but had a broad chest, a slight limp and a deep voice that occasionally hit a high tone, probably a side effect of puberty. I told him what had happened on the train that morning. He looked sympathetic and offered to give me a tour of Varanasi. And there is was, “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”.
I walked with Vinay past the different Ghats, the stairs leading down to the Holy Ganges river. He told me about the body burning ceremony at the Big Burning Ghat. The dead are cremated according to their cast. The higher the cast, the higher up their bonfire is on the stairs and the better the wood their fire is fueled with.
According to Vinay, four types of corpses are denied the holy cremation. Holy men and babies, pregnant women, victims of the leprosy disease, due to the risk of infection and those killed by a snake bite. The first three are thrown into the river, while the poisoned are placed on a banana leaf, with their address attached to their chest, and left to float on the Ganges. It is believed that a spirit will bring them back to life and send them home to the aforementioned address.
After the cremation, the living participants at the ceremony bathe in the Ganges to purify themselves. A few meters away, some women wash their clothes and dishes in the river. The same river in which the ashes and the unburned bodies commence their last journey. The same river into which the sewage water of the city flows. The same river from which the drinking water is tapped. I guess the holiness of this river neutralizes any kind of contamination.
One afternoon, I watched Vinay and Ravi play with a kite they had found on one of the stairs near the Ganges. They mended the broken frame with chewing gum and elongated the string with other pieces of thread they had gathered. I looked up to the sky and noticed that it was dotted with colorful kites, dancing in the wind. Flying kites in Varanasi is a competitive sport. These paper planes are made to fight each other. The pilots aim at cutting the string of the other kites with theirs by giving it a sharp tug. As soon as a victim is decapitated, the boys run off to collect their prey. The newly conquered kite is then recruited into the fleet.
Every evening, at 6 pm, we sat by the river and watched the daily bell ceremony. Six priests, each at an altar decorated with flowers and candles, sing prayers, burn incense and sandal wood oil. They ring their bells and throw the flower petals over their heads. The atmosphere is overwhelming. The soft sound of the young men chanting the mantras, the rhythmic ringing of the bells, the sweet scents of the burning oils. The crowd of hundreds of tourists and locals, gathered around the priests is silent, enchanted and full of awe. For the first time, after almost a month of traveling through India, I get a hint of the spiritual aspect of this fascinating culture. The power of this mystical ceremony is overwhelming.
One evening, Ravi offered to watch the ceremony on a friend’s boat. We floated on the dark waters of the Ganges river that night, surrounded by little banana leaf cups with yellow petals and a candle in them. You can make a wish with this candle and the Ganges will make it come true. We sat in the boat in silence and watched the ceremony … as someone’s dream floated by.