Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Experiencing a cremation in the holy city of Varanasi

Varanasi in all its glory

Like many tourists before me, I arrived in Varanasi looking for a holy experience. With this being one of the main pilgrimage points for Indians, due to its proximity to the holy Ganga River, I thought this may be the place may be a holy catalyst. Varanasi’s storied past and stellar reputation breads excitement. It almost seems as if a trip to India isn’t complete without it. So, after 26 hours on a train and one bumpy rickshaw ride, I found myself on the banks of the holy river, looking for an authentic Indian experience.

I made my way down the slippery, squalid steps of a lesser known Ghat to where all the action was occurring. There was a large gathering, and while normally shy, I found myself weaving through the crowd to see the spectacle at hand. On the temporary banks of the overflowing river, four men ushered a bamboo gurney charioting their fallen loved one. Near where the body would meet the water, there was a wooden altar set ablaze. The men fully submerged the body, then proceeded to chant, pray, and wash themselves and the fallen with the murky, brown water. The body and pallbearers remained submerged for nearly 30 minutes. As the fire was feed and began to grow, my new found boldness faded, and I retreated to a nearby, more secluded perch.

The process of the cremation isn’t one that occurs rapidly. The body, the ushers, and those surrounding spend much time looking out over the flowing waters. As I watched from my elevated vantage point, I noticed that there wasn’t a single female on the banks, or in the surrounding crowd. Unlike a western funeral, I also saw onlookers come to gaze at the procession, as well as try to sell tourists an opportunity to get a nice, “snap” of the body for 200 rupees. At one point, I even had a group of Indians come to take a photo of me, followed with offers to imbibe in their local moonshine and/or potent, burning chillum. The boys were reluctant accept my declination, and were even more reluctant to return to the procession when called, due to an ember still burning in the chillum. This is the point when the body was finally placed atop the mound of flaming logs. After a few moments, I found myself unable to bear anymore. Having experienced enough death in my mere 26 years, and not anxiously anticipating inevitable funerals of loved ones in the future, my time at the cremation came to a close.

While seeing the cremation was the authentic situation I was looking for, I started to feel uncomfortable witnessing something so intimate for a person, a family whom I’ve never known. The truth is, this thought is purely created through a western lens.  India is a spectacle. Each and every day the streets, sounds, and smells are a show, yet not created for an audience. With a population so large, the idea of intimacy or seclusion is next to impossible. People performing all their daily doings publically has created a culture of showmanship where even the simplest acts are under subject of passerby. This has only been exacerbated by the influx of tourists. Whether you are purchasing food for a meal, or the crazy westerner bathing in the Ganga in a bikini, your actions will render a crowd. Knowing this is necessary to survive and thrive in India.

As is life, Varanasi is subject to the same fate as many popular destinations in India; consumer driven and a vestigial of its past. For those willing to sift through the metaphorical shit, Varanasi is a place that offers a plethora of authentic experiences, and a look at what makes India such an appealing destination. The trick is learning how to discern the pukka from the contrived.

Photo courtesy of Mana Hotels

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