November 22, 2004

Varanasi, India: Cleansing and Cremation

Untouchables work Varanasi, India's burning ghats, adding wood to the funeral pyres that blaze each dawn. They stack the thin corpses, wrapped in white shrouds. Hindus cremated along the Ganges in Varanasi (Banaras, Benares, Kashi, Kasi) are released from the endlessness of reincarnation. When a body has been reduced to a small pile of burnt black bone, the untouchables lift another corpse onto the pyre, add more wood, and stoke the flames, which flash and shimmer along the Ganges' bank. When the morning's burning is done, the ashes, along with bits of unburnt bone and flesh, are scattered into the river, Mother Ganga. The flames purify the dead, making them clean enough to be accepted by Mother Ganga's thick, brown waters. Only babies and holy men are pure enough not to need ritual cremation cleansing.

As the sun begins to rise, throwing golden shafts of light on Varanasi's sandstone buildings, the city becomes a kaleidoscope of purples and pinks, ochres and oranges. The city's other ghats start to hum with activity. Bathers, many fully-dressed, immerse themselves in the fetid water, palms together in prayer. Men, women and children wash clothes in the river and spread them to dry along the steps of the bathing ghats. Saddhus dispensing blessings and wisdom sit under umbrellas, waiting for customers. Contortionists in linen loincloths face into the rising sun, exercising, stretching, preening. Child peddlers paddle boats filled with votive candles in lotus blossom leaves. They approach you with hands outstretched. You buy a candle and send your offering floating down the Ganges.

Our boatman rows us back to shore. We pass another boat. It holds a family making its slow, sad way to the middle of the river. The father holds a tiny body wrapped in white. An infant, to be received by Mother Ganga.