The Burning Ghats, Varanasi
Draft book extract
The Ganga was high and so we had to walk the long way through the busy part of town, rather than walk along the river to the Burning Ghats, where cremations take place.
It was a really awful walk, with the heat and the pollution. We stopped at a stall and bought scarves to put over our faces.
The walk was hard but I saw faded red stairs inside a house, pale pink walls, and above the open door a tiny lemon on a string with green beans threaded horizontally above and below making a decoration or a talisman.
As we got near, people called out, ‘Dead body burning?’ and told us which way to go. It seemed so inappropriate to treat this as a tourist attraction, even though that’s what we and other people were doing. We do it, but we don’t want to be open about it. But people in India are direct and things in India are out in the open, especially death.
An man came up to us and took us around. He took us into the burning room where the bodies of Brahmins (the priest caste) are cremated. In metal frames raised off the ground were piles of fire almost out. We were very close, it felt very weird.
The burning takes several hours and the family stays for the duration. We saw a family, it felt intrusive although our guide appeared relaxed about it.
The room was up high; from one side we looked down and saw piles of firewood, from the other he showed us where everyone else was burned, on the ground level. Amongst the ash were gold pieces that looked like foil decorations.
The man showed us a small fire smouldering, ‘The Shiva fire,’ which never goes out.
He told us that he was a social worker at the hospice in the building next door, doing massage and caring for the dying.
At the end of the tour he asked for donations for poor people’s cremations. He told us how many kilos of wood it takes to burn a body, and how much the wood cost per kilo. ‘How many kilos are you going to buy?’ he asked. ‘Is that all?’ We both left feeling guilt tripped about our contribution being too little.
On the way back we saw a body being carried through the streets on a simple stretcher of fabric and sticks with a blanket over; the person’s body was so thin, so flat.
It was an overwhelming walk back again with the heat and pollution.
It was so good to be back in our alleyways; the old town is not so polluted.
We stopped at the nearest of our regular cafes and ordered fizzy drinks. I went to the sink and washed my hands. With a bottle of Sprite in hand I immediately better, before even drinking it; just by being back there, in the land of the living.
I still felt a bit strange from the emotional impact of it all. ‘Tea and cake’ was required. I bought biscuits from a little shop, and we went to a coffee shop. The coffee shop was small, with wooden benches and tables. Sitting near us were an Indian man and a Western woman. There was a long wait for coffee, and they struck up a friendly conversation with us.
He was from another state, travelling, trying to find something different to do, she was from Europe. She said it was her second time in India, but her first time in Varanasi. She said couldn’t do Varanasi the first time, it was too intense.
We spoke about being tired, and about the heat. He said, ‘Do stuff before ten am or after ten pm;’ the implication being, in between do nothing.
They ordered more chai. They said, ‘How many chai have we had now? Four or five? We’ve had one every half an hour since ten thirty this morning.’
They bought us tea. The coffee shop encounter and chat, the biscuits, provided me with the comfort I needed.
Anthony said, ‘There’s always something, for every bad experience, there’s a good one.’
We got back and told our guesthouse manager where we had been. He said, ‘People say they are social worker,’ ‘Yes,’ we said, ‘And they do massage, care for the people, and need money for wood.’
‘No,’ he said, ‘There’s no hospice there. That building is a place for families to stay. The family pays for wood, if they are a poor person, the community supplies the wood.’ I told him how many kilos for each body, how much per kilo. He shook his head. ‘How many kilos did you buy?’ His face was a picture. ‘You should have asked me first,’ he said.
I felt much better though, finding out we’d been scammed was better than feeling guilty about not giving enough money for wood for a poor person’s cremation. We paid for the man’s time and for the experience, we probably would have not had so much access without a guide, it was an ok amount, and any lies are on him.
On our last morning we woke up early and went up to the rooftop. The sun was just risen, an orange ball above The Ganga. People had put chapattis out on the roof terraces, squirrels were eating them. Some birds, like swallows, were making a huge noise.
There were monkeys all around, lots of babies, even a baby monkey sliding down a pole like a fire station pole.
People were already up, sweeping, doing exercises and prayers. People get up early and rest in afternoon, work around the heat. Women were making breakfast in caged off roof rooms, and hanging up laundry outside on the open rooftops, protected with sticks.
A black and white dog chained up watched the monkeys and barked when they went past. Another fluffy orange dog was loose and chased them, there was a near miss once.
We watched a monkey pick up a kite and just destroy it piece by piece, picking it up, looking at it as if interested, eating a bit, then tearing it to bits.
Thank you very much for reading
About the author
Sold house left job decluttered almost everything else. With husband went travelling for a year, mostly in India. Here are my India highlights. Currently in Vietnam. Returning to the UK in two weeks to live on a narrowboat. Writing a book about everything…
For more photographs of the trip see Instagram travelswithanthony