Burning Bodies And Scattering Souls in Varanasi

Expecting a relaxing few days in Varanasi, I got a front row seat for the ritualistic burning of bodies, roasted brains and floating corpses...
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Expecting a relaxing few days in Varanasi, I got a front row seat for the ritualistic burning of bodies, roasted brains and floating corpses...

A funeral pyre in Varanasi

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I’d been meaning to go to Varanasi, in northern India, for a couple of years, and due to this and that I hadn’t gone. Then one day I had a ‘fuck it’ moment and booked a flight to Delhi, to start my expedition to Varanasi.

Within a couple of hours of arriving in Delhi I had the most horrendous stomach bug, but shrugged it off as a passing thing. Delhi was bedlam, 2-3 days there is enough. So I booked an overnight trip to Varanasi on the ’Shiv Ganga express’ train, the fare was about 3 quid. After having to step in and nearly chin a bloke for beating the shit out of a kid in the train station (he was proper bashing him) I got on the overnight.

I arrived Varanasi at dawn………bonkers.

A simple description/background/history to Varanasi- Supposedly the oldest city in the world (it fuckin’ looks like it too) it’s the foremost pilgrim gathering place for the Hindu religion and the river is said to absolve all sins if you bathe in it. It’s also where people of Hindu faith want to be cast into the water after they’ve died. There is a festival every night at sunset and millions of people go to the Ghats (massive stone steps along the river) and sing and dance and float in boats on the river. The whole city is built around one bank of the river, there’s only one very small road to the river, other than that it’s just a maze of alleyways. There’s cows everywhere, they’re sacred and must be respected. There’s also crazy monkeys and diseased dogs everywhere you look.

Arriving here is an assault on your senses but an assault on your perception comes after….

A lovely English girl called Jan saw me struggling along trying to find a hotel whilst doubled with stomach pain. We spoke briefly and arranged to meet a couple of hours later. She was a girl alone and was getting a lot of hassle, and I was happy to have someone lead the way, so ill was I, so it was a good exchange. I haggled a hotel. By now my stomach was scoured, I was puking black bile and shitting razors. It was 40 degrees and I hadn’t slept a wink on the train.

I went to meet Jan and we walked along the Ghats, there’s about 5 miles of them in total, every 10 yards or so is a different meeting spot for a variation of Hinduism or a different Hindu god. I’d heard about the ‘Burning Ghat’ but nothing can prepare you for it….

As Hindu folk approach death often they trek to Varanasi to die, normally with a designated grandchild to help, and all of their life savings, in order to be cremated and cast into the Ganges for holy cleansing before they meet their god. Sometimes these people run out of money before they die and don’t have enough money to pay for the wood to be cremated (about £4) and so are just slung in the water by a passer-by or appointed guardian. While reading this please try to remember that the lower of the 6 tier class system in India have nothing, no home, no money, nothing, they often live on scraps of rice all of their lives, I’m talking about hundreds of millions of people. Back to the burning ghats…

As you approach you can see about 15 fires of various sizes, as you get closer you may see a human foot or a head hanging out of a fire, skin peeling off it, and a bloke (known as an ‘Untouchable’) whacking the body with a massive bamboo cane to break the spine and curl the body back into the middle of the fire. This isn’t happening behind a door or through some glass, this is happening 4 feet away from you. We sat and watched. For the first ten minutes we were shocked, for the next ten it seemed barbaric, and after that we accepted it, and it seemed normal, sacred to these people, part of life, something that needed doing. There is no crying, no prayers, no hymns, nothing.

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The cremation is day 10 of a 10 day mourning ceremony, the bodies are brought down from a building about 30 yards up from the water, wrapped in silk and flowers, carried by family if they’re lucky, if not, just anyone, then taken to the water, the silk is removed, the flowers discarded, numerous cows eat them. If the person died of certain causes, a snakebite being one, childbirth another (can’t remember the others) the body is cast straight into the water. I think it’s something to do with Hindi not letting these people be burnt, as these people are considered exceptional due to their laboured death, dunno, a local did explain it to me, but I was in a daze at the time, and ill as fuck. But normally the body is dunked into the water for holy cleansing then carried to a stack of wood, placed on top then handed over to one of the Untouchables (they’re considered scum by the class system) for cremation. Once the body has burnt down and beaten to the point where just the hip and coccyx remain the Untouchable tosses that portion of the body into the water. The family then go up the bank and have all their hair chopped off. Hindu send off complete.

The oddest and most shocking moment for me was seeing an Untouchable beating the head of a burning body to break it down, and the top of the head broke away, like a coconut shell might upon a strike from a hammer, and the part cooked brain fell out onto the ashes and bubbled. Jan and I immediately turned to each other and said “Did you see that?”

I worked out they burn about 15 bodies an hour, for 15 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year. That’s 80,000 charred remains per year, thrown into a 40 yard stretch of the river. The non-cremated whole bodies float down stream and wash up wherever and decompose. The charred remains probably sink pretty soon. The local pilgrims swim in and drink this water all day everyday, it’s a foaming scummy corpse soup, however they believe it heals and cleanses. Maybe I should have tried it, might have sorted my stomach out…

At this point I’d been in Varanasi 2 hours. I was there for 3 days in total, and the freneticism was constant throughout my stay.

Varanasi is by far the most mental place I’ve ever been, and I’ve been to quite a few mental places. I’d advise anyone to go. It changes the way you think. Just don’t expect it to be relaxing.