7:20 – I’m laying awake in bed while a dozen monkeys scream hysterically outside my window. There’s no snooze button on this alarm clock! Time to get up and tackle Saturday #75.
8:30 – I put some laundry in a plastic bag and take it to the front desk where a sign advertises “same day laundry service.” The desk clerk looks at my plastic bag and says, “Please use the cloth bag that’s in your room and fill out the forms inside.” Yes, he said forms. Plural. I return to my room and find the laundry bag containing a set of complicated forms and tags. I conclude that it will be quicker and easier to just do the laundry myself.
9:30 – I have walked about 1km in search of an American style breakfast joint called Johnny’s. Everyone at my hotel raves about it, although I have yet to meet anyone who has actually been there. Even the locals seem to know of it but cannot give me specific directions. I give up and head back toward the Ganges.
9:55 – Navigating the warren of narrow alleys and finding the Ganges proves much easier than finding a brie and pear omelette. (You’ll eventually hit the Ganges if you just keep walking downhill.) When I’m near my hotel I notice a small cafe with a sign advertising 10 types of artisanal cheese. Cheese! There’s a calf out front eating a fried egg. It must be good! I order a fried egg, white cheddar, tomato and cucumber sandwich on toasted whole wheat. The cheese comes from Auroville – the hippie commune near Puducherry that was founded on principles similar to those of Burning Man. I haven’t had cheddar this good since the cheese my mom regularly bought at the Stouffville Co-Op in the 1970s.
10:50 – A boy of about four or five has been following me for a good five minutes. He has been tugging at my shirt and once every five seconds he says “chocolate?” Each time I reply “no chocolate.” After a while I begin to wonder if he’s asking for a chocolate or perhaps selling chocolate. I don’t have any candies but I do have two Extra Strength Tylenols and I’m this close to taking one and giving him the other.
11:10 – I ditch the chocolate addict but soon meet two more boys who are carrying a baby goat. It’s very clear what they want because they tell me straight up: “10 rupees, take photo.” I take several and give them each a 10 spot. In a flash the whole damn family appears out of nowhere!
11:15 – I stop to buy a bottle of water from a vendor near the ghat. As I bend over to get money from my backpack, the elderly man caresses my head and says “very nice coconut.” I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or not.
11:22 – A teenage boy carrying a wire cage containing a baby owl approaches and suggests that I will be blessed with eternal good karma if I just purchase said owl for 300 rupees and set it free. I’ll take my chances on the karma thing as I know he’ll just go to the market and buy three more baby owls. They were 100 rupees apiece the last time I checked.
11:40 – I sit down on a pile of wood and watch as a man weighs firewood on a scale and loads it on the back of another man. The families of recently deceased people carry the body to the ghat and then pay suppliers like this guy for a stack of firewood that will be delivered to the ghat. They also pay the operator of the ghat to stack the wood and tend to the actual cremation.
11:50 – While watching the wood dealer I spot a bull staring at me from across the alley. He looks harmless, as do most of the millions of cattle who roam freely in India. Check out the video link below.
For some unknown reason I tensed up and accidentally stopped the video a bit prematurely. No harm was done. It’s as if the bull was saying, “you’re welcome to watch the burning but just be respectful with the camera.”
12:18 – I am approached by a nicely dressed man of about 60 who tells me he is a retired civil engineer and now doing volunteer work for a nearby hospice that is the final home for elderly people who wish to die near the sacred Ganges. He informs me that the steps on which I’m standing are reserved for families of the deceased and I should move to one of the overhead balconies that actually provide a better view. I do as he suggests and am immediately corralled by two more nicely dressed men of similar age who launch into a detailed explanation of the burning process. I repeatedly tell them that I don’t require a guide. “No guide, we’re volunteers, sir. We don’t take moneys.”
12:38 – After 20 minutes they are clearly running out of facts and figures to recite and one of the men asks if I have learned something about the ghats. When I agree that I have, he suggests that a donation to the hospice would be appropriate. “I told you five times, I didn’t want a guide,” I say. “Don’t you want to help the poor and elderly people of the hospice?” “I would,” I say, “if I knew anything about the hospice,” but these guys have no ID whatsoever, not even their own personal ID. They have no signage, no literature, no receipts or anything that would even hint at them being legit. I ask the name of the hospice. “No name. Just hospice.” And the address? “Right over there,” they say, each pointing in a different direction.
12:40 – They weren’t very convincing so no money changed hands. “You are a very bad man,” I hear them say as I walk away.
12:42 – It isn’t two minutes before another guy approaches. “Which country you from?” “How long in India, my friend?” All the usual questions. This guy has a new twist though. “You like some Super Duper?” I tell him that I’m fully stocked up on Super Duper right now but he won’t take no for an answer and finds 10 ways to ask the same question over and over. After a while my curiosity gets the best of me and I have to ask him, “What exactly is Super Duper?” He replies: “You have not been to Amsterdam coffee shop?”
13:05 – I’ve been watching the burning process for over an hour and I’ve been approached by another five or six guys who tell me the steps are reserved for families and I’d have a better view from one of the balconies. This leads me to believe they are independent operators. If they were working in teams, surely the word would have spread that the bald guy is a waste of time.
13:15 – “What country you from,” asks a guy of about 25. When I reply “Canada,” he says, “Oh, Stephen Harper gone now. Bad man.” I explain that while I didn’t support his party, Harper himself wasn’t close to what I would call a “bad man.” We just had different political views, I tell the guy. “Many Canadians tell me is very bad man.” Perhaps many Canadians have told him that, I don’t know. It’s also possible that he knows 2 out of 3 Canadians voted for one of the other parties and dissing Harper is an effective way to start a conversation with a Canadian. Either way, he’s more interested in what’s in my wallet than my political views so I quickly move on.
13:45 – I decide to walk further down the river to escape the touts and shills who gather near the funeral pyres. Over the course of a half hour I’m approached by no fewer than six teenage boys who offer to take me out on their boats. “Just you and me, we go way over there,” pointing to the nearly deserted far bank of the river. It’s pretty clear what services they’re offering but I’m not buying. This is the single biggest surprise I’ve encountered in India.
17:00 – I’ve had lunch, a nap, and done some laundry at the hotel. It’s time to head back to the ghats to catch the sunset, or what can be seen of it through the smoke.
(Close up photography of the creamations is frowned upon during the day but locals say it’s okay to take photos from a distance during the day or after sunset as long as you’re not close enough to identify the bodies.)
17:20 – A guy of about 30 introduces himself as Vijay from Delhi. He works for his family’s wholesale fabric business and visits Varanasi once a month to check on retail clients. He strikes me as honest and straightforward. He’s definitely cleaner and better dressed than the boys offering boat rides. We sit down on the steps and he gives me a primer on the Hindu religion, the customs surrounding cremation, and why the Ganges is considered sacred. When I suggest that we get some chai from a vendor I spotted further down the river, he offers to go get it. He won’t take my cash but runs off to get the chai. I place my wallet in my backpack, cognizant of the fact that Vijay now knows that I have several credit cards and a thick stack of large denomination bills.
17:30 – Vijay returns with two cups of chai and three pieces of folded newspaper containing spicy dried peas, roasted peanuts, and warm grilled corn kernels in butter. We sit near the funeral pyres and he goes into further detail about the cremation process, the wood they use, and who pays what for what.
I learn that mango wood is wet and fetches 400R for 40kg. A much harder and dryer wood sells for 600R for 40 kg. You’d need about 200kg for the average body, says Vijay, but I’d require about 300kg of dry wood. Good to know, I guess. At 2500R for a single kilogram, sandalwood is by far the most expensive wood sold at the ghat. Very rich families may buy a log of sandalwood but most could only afford a small twig which is placed on top of the body for purification purposes. We sit and watch as another dozen bodies are delivered, submersed in the river, left to dry for an hour, then placed on top of a pile of logs and set on fire. Each body burns for at least an hour before the fire is doused, some ashes collected, and another pyre is constructed on the same spot.
18:50 – Vijay suggests that we walk to the next ghat where a ceremony is performed every night at 7 p.m. I find it interesting for about 20 minutes but I’m not sure I can take a solid hour of continuous chanting and incessant bell ringing. Vijay senses this and asks if I’d like to go for a drink. I’m not sure what he has in mind but I agree and we set off for a liquor store that he claims is about 15 minutes away on the main road.
19:10 – We’re walking to the liquor store when Vijay points to a house that he has mentioned earlier. It’s the home of a friend who is an expert in aromatherapy and sells both essential oils and an exclusive blend of masala (a mix of six spices that is added to tea and other foods. I agree to go inside and check it out. The man and his wife and two kids live in one sparsely furnished room on the main floor, a larger courtyard is home to their cattle, and a third room serves as his place of business. The walls of the showroom are lined with shelves and hundreds of small cut glass bottles of exotic oils and scents.
We drink more chai, both with and without masala. He dabs my arm with several essential oils and explains the properties of each. After a few minutes he asks if I have an issue with my toes. I don’t know how he knows this as I haven’t mentioned it to Vijay, and I don’t think it’s noticeable when I walk, but I occasionally feel some pain in the joint of one middle toe. I suspect that it’s arthritis. He launches into a low pressure sales pitch for Oil of Agar (wood). I agree to buy a small bottle. Then the push turns to his exclusive blend of masala. It’s much better than the stuff I’ve had on the street and from vendors on the trains so I agree to buy a 2kg bag if he’ll provide some extra containers. I’ll be spending the next two weeks with a new Dragoman group and will give everyone a small package of masala at Christmas.
Although Vijay has told me several times that he receives no commission from this guy, the broad smile on his face when I agree to buy a 2kg bag suggests otherwise. His demeanour changes pretty quickly when I break the news that I have left my wallet at the hotel and will have to return on Sunday or Monday. Vijay is speechless. He didn’t realize it, but when he had offered to buy chai and snacks, we were standing directly in front of my guest house. While he was gone I slipped inside and hid my wallet in my room.
20:10 – We’re walking back to the Ganges, through the maze of narrow, dark alleys and Vijay is clearly despondent. He has invested a lot of time in me and now his lucrative commission is in jeopardy. I can hear the wheels turning in his head. How can he salvage something from this debacle of an evening? If he can lie through his teeth, so can I. I tell him that I don’t have any cash and until the bank opens on Monday I will only be able to charge food to my hotel room.
20:11 – Vijay alters course and ducks into an even narrower and darker alley. There’s no way I’m going in there so I wait at the entrance under a dim street light. I count 10 seconds, 30 seconds, a minute. He doesn’t return. It’s not that late and there’s still time for him to reel in another fish. So long, Vijay.
22:35 – I sit on the steps near the main ghat for an hour and on the roof of an ancient building for another 30 minutes, sharing my rye and Pepsi with a young couple from Sweden. We sit in almost complete silence as another 20 bodies are dunked in the Ganges and placed on the pyres.
It’s been a pretty good day, I conclude. I survived a set of bull horns to the gut and didn’t get so much as a bruise; I fended off all manner of hucksters (and hustlers); and for the price of a bottle of rye, I’ve had a front-row seat to one of the most moving ceremonies you’ll see on this earth – a Hindu funeral and cremation on the banks of the Ganges.
Hindus believe the soul is a spirit that a sword cannot pierce, fire cannot burn, water cannot melt, and the air cannot dry. The soul is free, unbounded, holy, pure, and perfect.
According to author Amrutur Srinivasan, “Death applies only to the physical body; there is no death of the soul. Hindus don’t believe in the resurrection of the material body. They believe that upon death, the soul, which truly represented the person, has departed or detached. The body has no significance and, therefore, no attempt is made to preserve it.”
I was struck by how serene the families attending the cremations seemed to be. They were at peace with the death of a loved one and few if any tears were shed.
There is much to be learned on the banks of the Ganges.
Note to the man selling essential oils: If you are reading this – and you may be because I mentioned the name of my blog – I want you to know why I did not return to your shop. For a while I was willing to take a leap of faith that your masala mix was homemade and not just store bought crap and the aromatic oil that you claimed would help arthritis really was distilled from agar wood and not just a mixture of Mazola and Glade. But after finally seeing through your deceitful recruiter, Vijay, I decided not to do business with any more back alley vendors. I know the name and address of your business but have decided not to publish it in the off chance that you are legitimate and it’s only Vijay who is the deceptive con-man. If that’s the case, I suggest you rethink your marketing plan.