My arrival in Varanassi could not have been stranger. Of course, like all the other tourists, I am here to witness death - death on a large scale. You see, all deceased Hindu's are sent to Varanassi to be cremated or disposed of (by other means), on the banks of the River Ganges. According to popular Hindu belief, the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives (Samsara), and its next incarnation is always dependent on how the previous life was lived. It is Hindu belief that if a person dies or is cremated in Varanassi there is a good chance that the cycle of life and death will be broken. Although I have done my research on Varanassi, also known as Benares and one of the oldest cities in the world, nothing could have prepared me for the reality of what I was about to witness.
The train pulls into Varanassi station, I gather my possessions and step onto the platform. The journey from Calcutta has been long and arduous. All I want now is a comfortable guesthouse with as little aggravation as possible. Naturally, this is never the case in India (and that's what makes it so special). Before my foot has even stepped on the platform, there is a commotion breaking out, not 30 paces to my right. Despite my travel fatigue, my curious disposition gets the better of me and I push my way through the gathering crowd. When I see the focus of the crowd's attention, I wish that I had not bothered. Ok, I am a self confessed death tourist, but I was not expecting to see a pile of dead bodies, quite so soon. Five seconds ago, I was hungry - my appetite seems to have disappeared as quickly as the crowd of bystanders amassed.
The bodies, I discover, have just arrived (probably on the same sleeper train as me). It turns out that this is perfectly normal for Varanassi. Over the course of the next few days, I am to observe dead bodies in many different forms and in a whole variety of strange places. The city has more than it's fair share of those that are dying and those that are dead (a little like Eastbourne I guess). Add to this, the tourists here to witness death and thousands of nonchalant cows, and you've pretty much summed up the demographic of Varanassi.
It's a case of, get the dead (or dying) there by any means possible. It used to be, that poor families, often threw their dead onto trains which were bound for the worlds biggest crematorium. The trains would arrive with dead people strewn in the aisles, toilets or even on the roof. I believe that this practice has been all but outlawed by the introduction of police that are employed to stop the sneaky antics of the poor. However, those that succeed in getting their dead to Varanassi by this means, are rewarded by a free funeral in the local, government run incinerator. The incinerator being the cheapest form of cremation and reserved for those of low caste.
By the time I find my guesthouse, I have already witnessed a human carcass on the roof rack of a car and another one in a rickshaw. Strangely, I am beginning to get used to it already. How malleable the mind is!
The next day, I awake early. I am kind of excited at the prospects of seeing funeral rituals on the ghats of the Ganges. First it's time to have breakfast. I wander the streets in search of a suitably relaxing environment in which to dine. Walking anywhere in Varanassi it turns out, is nigh on impossible. The whole place is overrun by those damn sacred cows. Seriously, they are everywhere. They sit there, in the middle of the road, as though they own the place (which in fact they do). Unlike the West, where the cow is practically seen as a walking hamburger, in India the cow is deemed to be the symbol of the Earth - because it gives so much and asks for nothing in return. It is Hindu belief that the cow acts as a surrogate mother by providing dairy products to human beings. It is not uncommon to see cars backed all the way down the road because nobody dare disturb the cow. Nobody that is, with the exception of old ladies - who seem to make no qualms about hitting the cows with sticks. If it was not for the actions of the old ladies, I fear that the whole place would grind to a halt.
My battle of wits and patience with the holy cows, is duly rewarded, when I chance upon a little oasis of calm within the walls of this bizarre bovine kingdom. However, I am only given enough respite, to order and have my breakfast served, before I hear an almighty crashing sound behind me. I turn around and witness 3 wayward cows, who are casually ambling through the courtyard, without a care in the world. The fact that my table is knocked over and my food trampled on, may under normal circumstances, have left me feeling victimised. By the time that the trio of beasts have been rounded up, however, every table in the restaurant has been destroyed. The waiter's futile attempts to rid the restaurant of the cows, by gently whispering in their ears, yields scant result. Of course, it is only when an old lady arrives with a stick, that the cows flee in fear. The very appearance of the baton wielding pensioner is enough to prompt one cow to make a mountain of manure.
Once the cows have made their exit, the restaurant returns to normal in the bat of an eyelid. My table is up righted and food replaced so fast, that I am left wondering whether I actually witnessed the event at all. For the staff it would seem, this sort of thing is an everyday, possibly every hour occurrence.
After breakfast I head for the ghats. So, what are the ghats? These are steps which lead down to a holy river, and can be found in many parts of South Asia. There are almost 100 ghats in Varanassi. Most are used only for the purpose of bathing, but others are used for cremations. Without hesitation, I head for one of the latter. I don't actually recall the name of the ghat in question, but what I witness there, will be forever etched in my mind.
Along the way, I pass a multitude of ghats. Although serenity exudes at each of them, it is difficult not to wonder how these people survive as long as they do. The locals, perform their ablutions in the same water, that they wash their clothes, brush their teeth, swim, wash their fruit and vegetables and remarkably drink. The river is saturated with flotsam and jetsam, ranging from flowers and pieces of timber, to human faeces and an array of dead animals. I am astounded to see that the waters are also frequented by river dolphins. If these observations are not enough to put anybody off, a quick dip in the Ganges, the next piece of information most certainly will be.
I reach a ghat used for cremation, where I stand and observe, the most perculiar of experiences that I am ever likely to encounter in my life again. I note that the ghat is only occupied by men (I am later to find out that women are not allowed). The men are all busy carrying the bodies of their dead relatives to the water's edge, where they cleanse them in the holy river. They are then laid out on pieces of wood, doused in ghee and sprinkled with sandalwood powder, before being ignited. Around me bodies burn on the ghats, set at different levels on the steps. Upon inquiry, I am to discover that the lower down the steps that a body is burnt, the lower the caste. Those that are cremated closest to the river, are known as the untouchables, whereas the Brahmins (highest caste) are burnt at the top of the steps. Now, here comes the strangest part (oh yes, it gets more bizarre). There are 8 classes of people that do not get burnt on the ghats for various reasons. This group includes lepers, sadhus (Indian holy men), pregnant women, children and those that have been bitten by a cobra. Children are deemed pure already, as is, I assume the case with pregnant women and sadhus. Those that have been bitten by a cobra escape the fire because Shiva, the Hindu god that presides over Varanassi wears a cobra around his neck; a bite from the snake is considered to be a blessing. So, how do the lepers escape the flames? I thought that they would have been first on the fire, to rid of their diseased bodies. In Hindu culture however, leprosy is seen to be a mark of god (I guess, it's nice that this gives them hope during their lives). What, therefore happens to this elite group?
The bodies of the elite are not cremated; oh no! that would be far too easy. They are, wait for it - bound in cloth, weighted down and thrown to the river bed. Seriously, they are disposed of in the river, which begs the question - how in Shiva's name can the locals still be alive when they are blatantly drinking from these waters. I have no answer to this question.
As, I stand and watch the spectacle unfold. I am transfixed by the sight of bodies returning from whence they came. It does not take long for a body to be reduced to a pile of ashes. A life, extinguished before my very eyes. I am so hypnotised by the whole event, that I fail to realise that the dust raining down on my head, is the ashes of those that are burning around me. I turn, and am about to leave, when there is a massive explosion behind me. I spin on my axis, my heart murmuring and my legs shaking. I am faced by a group of locals, whose laughter is aimed in my direction. They point at their own heads and make explosive gestures. I eventually realise that they are telling me that the human skull explodes when it reaches a certain temperature. Who would have known?
I've seen enough, although in a weird fashion, the whole surreal experience has been spiritually uplifting. As, I walk away, a dog with an object in its mouth, captures my attention. Upon closer inspection, I see that it is a human hand. I am later to find out that the hands and the feet are the toughest part of the body and often do not burn. The local dogs surround the funeral pyres and wait for these limbs to fall off. When they do, they grab them and scarper for a nice little feast.
A week after leaving Varanassi, I go to a local police station to report a stolen camera. It takes approximately 3 hours to log a police report. Later in my trip, I relay the story of my lengthy police report to a fellow traveller. He tells, me that he had a similar experience whilst in Varanassi. As he sat in the police station waiting, he could hear a guy wailing in the opposite waiting room. After hours of waiting, the traveller approached the desk sergeant, and with irritation in his voice, asked why it was taking so long. To which the desk sergeant replied, "You think that you are having a bad day, see that guy over there, he is having a worse day - he has lost his mum". It turns out that the guy has had his suitcase, containing his dead mother, stolen whilst checking into a hotel in Varanassi. One, can only imagine the scene, when the thief opened the case.