I had started reading Allen Ginsberg’s Indian Journals a few days ago without realizing that outside of a short jaunt in Agra (in the early 1960s you could just wander in and sleep on the ‘warm marble’ of the Taj Mahal if you felt like it) it was almost entirely based in my next stop: Varanasi (or Benares).
Located alongside the holy Ganges River, the main attraction of the place are the ghats, stairways leading to the Ganges and forming a long, winding, up and down thoroughfare along its banks.
This is really all there is to do in town, but I can’t imagine a more wholly Indian experience. After walking along a couple of the ghats, sparsely populated with bathers (in the early morning there are throngs of them, but my train arrived too late to see that), I chartered a boat.
After passing beside several ornate ghats featuring Hindu and Muslim architecture and temples of every imaginable Indian sect situated atop the long staircases leading to the river, we reached Manikarnika Ghat, the one that infatuated Ginsberg and the one that you likely mentally associate with the place, even if you don’t know its name. This is the cremation ghat, all in the open air. When I first passed by, they were placing the body of a young woman on the funeral pyre, with her mother wailing and being consoled by a bald, white-clad saddhu, who joined in her grief as he led her away. It was a deeply sad, quintessentially Indian sight, with relatives and fighting dogs surrounding the pyre and garlands strewn about from previous funerals. Below, in the water, young shirtless men stood thigh deep, sifting ashes from dirt before floating them on to their final journey in the consecrated river. By the time my boat returned against the current, all that was left of the young woman’s pyre were smoldering blackened logs indistinguishable from what may have been leg bones.
As foreign a rite as this sounds, it wasn’t the most removed from Western practices that I heard (that would be Tibet’s) and there was a both a sad dignity and a more realistic, less sheltered attitude towards death present. They confront death head on instead of disguising it with makeup and preservatives, something you can’t help but respect.
As with everywhere, the customs are changing. The Ganges is still the most auspicious place to come and die, and certainly the best for a funeral, but not everyone can afford (or are offered) the wood fires, and there’s an electrical incinerator above the ghat that offers cremation for one tenth the price. Just like any box will get you in the ground, either way ends with your ashes mingling with the river, and is just as good.
On a lighter note, the architectural profusion of the other ghats was quite beautiful to behold, and seeing the bathers and clothes washers go about their business to the backdrop of ghats like Kedar, with its brightly painted stripes, was a vivid celebration of life, providing a counterpoint and balance to the display of death just a few bends down the river.
The latter part of my day I walked along the ghats once more, and stopped by the Hanuman Temple in town, where there were an amount of monkeys hanging around befitting a temple of the monkey god. Unfortunately, I got no pictures, but these guys looked the same as the monkeys in Jaipur and elsewhere. My last jaunt along the river reunited me with my boatman, and me brought me by his house to say hello to his family, then we walked up to a nearby temple for one last view of the river before heading back to the train station, and yet another night train.