Varanasi is the spiritual centre of Hinduism and I was there at the beginning of a big Shiva festival. The place was awash with bare-footed pilgrims, walking from the station, bathing in the river, laughing and praying. It ‘s mainly the young men who are dressed in orange - many wet from the river - jogging, eyes front, holding bamboo canes at shoulder height hung with offerings of flowers and beads and incense burning, and heading for the Golden Temple.
I couldn’t exaggerate the importance of the River Ganges - Mother Ganga – she is a goddess to Hindu people. For the living the waters of the river will wash away sins, and for the dead to have their ashes cast upon her water is the most direct route to heaven. There is the irony. It is hard to equate the Ganga’s cleansing powers with water that runs completely off the pollution clock.. it teems with sewerage, dead bodies and waterborne diseases. Efforts are being made to clean the river, but like everything in India, it is the scale of the problem that is so daunting.
You see all manner of life here – people bathing, praying, doing their yoga, washing their clothes, gossiping, – it happen all along the ghats. (Ghats are the areas wide stretches of steps down to the waters edge which, in Varanasi, are all along the west side of the Ganga).
The first evening I was taken, along with Tony and Tina from Taiwan (Taipei!) to walk to the burning ghat. Three or four fires were burning out, and a new one, unlit, had a body on it and was about to be ignited. Wood is stacked all around – burning goes on 24/7, about 70 bodies a day. Three tall, old buildings around the ghat, blackened by soot, are hospices where sick people who have no family and nowhere to go are fed and looked after...while they wait.
The bodies, wrapped in cloths and bound, are carried down on bamboo stretchers, through the warren of backstreets behind the ghat. They are immersed in the river before being laid on a fire. There is constant activity going on all around – relatives praying, ashes being raked and tipped into the river, new fires set up, people milling about, cows wandering down the steps, dogs chewing bones... There is no smell - just a lot of choking smoke - Tina kept her surgical mask on throughout. It was an extraordinary experience, but I found it strangely reassuring - that to a Hindu death is so much part of life, an exciting next step for them.