My last entry ended with me saying that I was excited to share Varanasi with you. It was a foolish thing to write – tantamount to saying “I’m excited to tell you about the funeral”. I had heard that it is the sort of experience best left to someone who has lived in India for a few years and understands more of the culture than a newbie like me, but thinking myself hardy, I discounted the warnings.
What exactly is Varanasi? It’s a sacred, Hindu city of four million people that sits on the banks of the Ganges River. Many Hindus believe that if you die in Varanasi, you break the cycle of reincarnation and go straight to heaven. If you don’t make it to the city for death, the next best thing is to be cremated on the shores of the Ganga. Platforms, or ghats line the river and many are centuries old. People gather here to pray, immerse themselves in the holy and cleansing waters of the Ganga, and to burn funeral pyres for deceased family members. It is these cremation rites that I think we non-Indians are most fascinated by in this city. First, the body is dipped in the river, then wrapped in cloth and placed on a pyre. The wood is smeared with ghee, or clarified cow/buffalo butter, and then lit. It takes about three hours for the body to burn. If the skull does not “pop” during this process, a bamboo pole is used to puncture it so that the soul can leave the body.
Not everyone can be cremated at death, including pregnant women, babies, snakebite victims, and lepers. It’s a complicated ritual, steeped in tradition and rules – most of which I am still unfamiliar. The closest male family member of the deceased, who lights the pyre and nurses the fire, has to perform his duties to perfection. If he doesn’t the soul will linger in a sort of no-man’s land and not complete its karmic journey.
Thursday night, we stood overlooking one ghat and watched about six pyres at various stages of burning or preparation. The heat, the smell, the cows, the dogs, the chanting, the ash – it was all a bit overwhelming. Death and the rituals that accompany it is a private affair in the west. What struck me here was the public nature of the funeral and what I interpreted as the lack of solemnity – but I think this is what separates Hinduism from other religions. Death is not a solemn affair. Rather, it is simply a practical means to the next life, whether it be here on earth or in Heaven or Hell. And Heaven and Hell are not necessarily places, but states of the soul.
Friday, we saw the sun rise over the Ganga – beautiful if you discount the flotsam and the hordes of tourists traversing the shores in hired boats. We later walked the ghats and explored areas along the river. One stop included a temple that sat high on a ghat honoring Lord Shiva, one of the central gods of Hinduism. Hindus believe that the Ganga flows from Shiva’s hair. There were many chambers inside the temple with various deities and assorted rituals and puja’s or prayers underway. Only today did I learn that a rock in the inner chamber of the temple was the shiva linga. The shiva linga is a phallus and is the most common and worshipped symbol of Shiva. It is placed in a shallow bowl shaped like a tear, which represents the female sex organ, or yoni. There was all sorts of stuff going on – the pouring of coconut milk and the smearing of bananas and other food items on the rock, chants and prayers – all of which I don’t understand and can’t explain to you. You are learning with me and maybe by the end of this journey the place, the people and the mysteries may feel more within reach. As for Hinduism – it’s quite a complicated and diverse religion and I’m not sure that I will ever fully understand it. I did learn that one is Hindu by birth only and cannot convert.
We also went to Sarnath, the birthplace of Buddhism and the site where Buddha gave his first sermon. Some of the ruins here are 2000 years old.
One last interesting thought to share: Numerous times did young men sidle up to me and whisper, “hash-hish, opium… best quality”. Apparently, there are government stores in Varanasi that sell bhang, or marijuana-laced yogurt drinks for mourners of the dead. It appears this marijuana and more fell off the truck and a thriving underground market exits. I hear there’s lots of bhang in Delhi too, with heightened consumption on Holi, a riotous Hindu holiday which is coming up March 1. I’d be first in line to try the bhang if I weren’t so worried about getting Delhi Belly from the yogurt part!
AND this: We couldn’t watch the Super Bowl here without having to go to the Amerian Club at 4:30 in the morning, but we did follow the last quarter of the game on ESPN’s website. The kids thought us nuts every time Jim and I yelled in excitement for the Saints. So, for my New Orleans readers – I hope you know that we soo miss our lazy, crazy days in NOLA and the myriad of celebrations that always seemed to lie just around the corner. We miss too, the joy of returning to the city whenever we left on trips. I used to say that coming home was like beginning a vacation. And PJ’s iced coffee, the food, the food, the food, drinks at the Columns, and our friends. Most of you are still there post-Katrina – working, living and still married! (or still not married….) I’m not sure Jim and I could have stayed so focused. Have a great Mardi Gras celebration this next week. I wish I were there to add to my collection of coconuts…
Here’s the latest roundup of photos:
Funeral pyres glowing in the distance:
Sunrise on the Ganga:
Early morning bathers: