Monday, April 25, 2005

The Fires In Varanasi

April 21
When the smoke rises in the distance from the banks of the Ganges you know what’s on the fire. The pyres run all day and all night where the river meets the ghats that line it’s western bank. They burn Hindu bodies still damp with the river’s water, and how long it takes for the contents of the cloths sacks to turn to ash depends on how big the fire is. How big the fire is depends on how much wood you can afford.

Christian and I walked along the Ganges at sunset tonight, heading north from our guesthouse at Assi Gaht. The gahts are basically steps that rise up from the river until they reach the two or three story buildings that line the area just up from the river. The guidebook lists about 30 gahts but when you start walking you realize there must be a hundred. You walk from one set of steps to the next as far as the eye can see.

When you reach one of the burning ghats (most have much more pedestrian uses like bathing or sells crap to tourists) it is arresting. There are five fires burning in a small area and workers are tending the flames as they engulf their bodies just a few steps from the river. On the raised area above, a hundred people are watching the scene. A male relative of the deceased is supposed to stay for the couple hours it takes for cremation to finish. The cost ranges from $50 to $125 (an “electrical” cremation is $12). There are two piles of ash five feet high. There are two bamboo stretchers with covered bodies waiting their turn. There is a dog finishing the job the fires started. It is tearing at cloth (or is that hair?) covered flesh. You can see the bloody red color of it.

“The dog eats meat, human meat,” a man watching with us says. “It is the circle of life.”

You don’t want to use judgmental words like ‘gross,’ so you settle for an understated “That’s intense.”

You keep walking as the sun keeps going down and after a million people ask you to buy postcards, boat trips, and massages you find a place for dinner. Then the power goes out and whole city turns black.

After dinner on the roof overlooking the darkened river you’ll walk up the tiny sidestreets dodging cows and bicycles and lit only by candles and passing motorcycles. You’ll take a rickshaw back to your guesthouse and refuse the customary demand to alter the agreed upon price. The city will still be dark except the candles and the few places with generators and the fires on the river that glow brightest when the rest of the city is black. They’ll burn all night and be waiting when you visit them again at dawn.


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