Monday, 15 March 2010

Wet bodies, dead bodies, speeding bodies

I’d been on the train from Agra for nearly 15 hours and it was finally daylight so I was able to watch snippets of India as they passed by my window. We were travelling through lush green countryside, a welcome sight after the barren desert of Rajashthan. Fields of oil seed rape glowed in the morning sun as villagers went about their daily chores. Young children, in uniform, skipped along the dirt path to school, men on bikes cycled to work and the women attended to the usual pile of dirty laundry. This was India as it should be, free from the shackles and chaos of urbanization.

All too soon I arrived in Varanasi: holy city and veritable centre of chaos. My pick up hadn’t arrived so I had to call the hotel and wait. Sat on my rucksack in the station, I drifted between people watching and swatting away at touts offering me rickshaws and accommodation. Here I saw one of the saddest examples of Indian poverty: a man, his legs contorted grotesquely, crawling on his hands and knees with plastic bags tied about his limbs to help prevent sores. Juxtaposed against the smartly dressed travelers tugging away at their heavy bags, this man was a truly sorry sight.

My pick up finally arrived and I eased my way onto the plastic covered seats of the car. We drove haphazardly through the usual tangle of streets before I was dropped off and my luggage thrust onto the back of a hotel ‘boy’ (the hotel ‘boy’ is usually a middle-aged man) who seemed to struggle beneath the weight as we meandered through ever narrower streets and alleyways to the Ganpati hotel.

My hotel was right on the bank of the Ganges between a burning ghat and the bathing ghats. People come to the banks of the Ganges to wash away their sins or to die. With a little luck, the bathing doesn’t cause their deaths, but with water samples suggesting that the feacal and bacterial content in the Ganges is 500 times higher than it ought to be, it’s a distinct possibility.

At 6am the following morning, as first light crept over the horizon, I was sat in a wooden boat with a French guy named Karim (who I’d actually met at my hotel in Agra two days before) and a boatman. We set off slowly down the river, watching as the pink globe inched its way into the sky. A little way off, in another boat, a group of Hindus in saffron robes sang songs of worship that resonated eerily through the quiet of the morning.

As the sun rose, so the Ganges came to life. Along the bathing ghats, men stripped down to their white underwear, entered the Ganges and zealously dunked themselves in the murky brown water. Women in brightly coloured saris lined up on the lowest steps, their reflections transforming the edge of the Ganges into a rainbow of colour. Soon they too were up to their waists in the filthy broth, dousing themselves with bacteria galore. On the top step of the ghat two holy men dressed in white and holding a candle performed a ceremony to the sound of a drum; in the river below worshippers (and tourists!) in boats lit candles tucked into lotus flowers and placed them reverently in the water so that the river was filled with little balls of light.

As we inched our way along the river, by other boats filled with tourists and the ubiquitous souvenir boats trying to flog junk, we passed by men dressed in white lungis and women in saris thrashing wet clothing against large stones sticking out of the murky water. I made a mental note to myself to delay handing my clothes in for laundry.

As we watched the laundry men and women at work, a cloud of smoke engulfed us and we were showered with small pieces of ash. We had arrived at the burning ghat. This ghat was the smaller of the two main ghats and at that time in the morning only two bodies were in the process of being cremated. Even from where we sat in the river, the blackened, shriveled and leathery features of a man’s head and feet were clearly visible.

We watched for a short while before returning back to the boat ramp. Having seen the burning ghat from a distance, I was keen to get a closer look at this fascinating spectacle. Karim and I headed to the larger burning ghat just a short distance from my hotel. It was reasonably quiet so we were able to stand and watch without being pestered by people wanting to charge us for an explanation of the process.

Having visited the ghat the day before, and having had the full explanation, Karim was well-able to explain the ceremony. As we watched, a body draped in a simple white shroud was carried down to the steps on the edge of the ghat. This was the body of a pauper. Those who were well off were brought down to the ghat on a bamboo stretcher and adorned with luxurious materials and flower garlands.

This poor gentleman was placed unceremoniously on the steps: a dog cocked its leg and peed against the wall next to his him, a cow wandered by and men carrying heavy loads of wood, stepped over him. A relative, overcome with grief, knelt by his head and cried; a male relative peeled back the white shroud and took a photo of the dead man’s face. The group of relatives sat about the body paying their last respects.

It was soon time for the female relatives to retreat to higher ground (women are not allowed down by the pyres) whilst one of the male relatives went to bathe in the Ganges and get his head shaved. The pyre was built with great care and the body was placed on top. Whilst the wealthy are taken down for a full dunk in the Ganges then cremated on higher ground, poorer people are cremated on lower ground near the river’s edge and receive a mere dribble of Ganges water poured over them from a silver bucket

At one point, the shroud was pulled back and we caught a glimpse of the man. He had a full head of grey hair, his face was a deathly grey and on his chest was a large patch of blood. Clear oil was rubbed into his forehead and his dignity covered once more with the shroud. His body was sprinkled with a powder that takes away the scent of cremation and then doused in Ganges water.

By now, the closest male relative to the deceased had had his head shaved – bar a small stub of hair on the back of his head – as a sign of respect. He descended down to the body with the other male relatives and held aloft a set of long twigs with glowing embers that had been lit at the fire of Shiva in the temple behind the ghat. The male relatives walked round the body five times, stopping at the head each time to make a blessing.

The relative with the shaven head then lit the fire and soon the pyre was engulfed in flames. Wood was placed on top of the body and there the man lay for three hours until all but a couple of his bones had burnt. Occasionally, a man with a big stick would rearrange any limbs that had escaped the flames. The ash that has accumulated – bar that which wafts through the air and onto your breakfast at the hotel rooftop restaurant – is finally gathered up and placed into the river before another pyre is built on the same spot.

We watched for a good hour or so and, far from being grotesque, the whole process felt remarkably peaceful. Wandering off, we decided to head for breakfast.

Later that morning, whilst meandering our way through the myriad of narrow alleyways, we came across a cinema and booked a couple of tickets to see ‘My Name is Khan’ – the latest Bollywood blockbuster, minus the song and dance, which we watched later that afternoon. (The film was in Hinglish – a bizarre cross between English and Hindi – so we were able to understand it bar the odd Indian joke)

In the meantime, we headed back to the burning ghats to see them in full flow. In contrast to early morning where the area was relatively quiet, there were now 10 bodies being cremated simultaneously so the whole area was awash with frenetic wood carriers, wailing relatives and gawping tourists. We made our way down to where we’d stood that morning and watched as bodies draped in marigolds were rushed about on their bamboo stretchers. Every now and then a cow would steal a chain of marigolds off the body and stand their munching happily. We were stood there peacefully when suddenly I was barged out of the way by a man holding the front end of a bamboo stretcher. I went to step back out of the way of the dead body only to find a cow stood right behind me. Only in India could you find yourself trapped between a dead body and a cow!

The following morning I was on my way to the airport in a rickety rickshaw to fly via Delhi to Kathmandu. It was my last few hours in India and I wasn’t disappointed. As we rattled and shook our way to the airport my driver kindly pointed out the sights. At one pointed he shouted out ‘body!’ and pointed. There, strapped to the roofrack of a 4x4, was a dead body wrapped in a shroud and bombing it at full pelt towards the holy city. That final glimpse of India confirmed what I’d spent six weeks learning: India is a world unto itself!

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