Let’s start with the dead body, and work backwards.
A 4 x 4 drives towards us, this cold morning. Dark,anonymous, it takes up more room than it should on the road. We are forced to the left, not forced off the road but certainly made to make way. I look as he passes by, and notice a shape on the roof rack. A human shape – body, features, covered in a sheet, garlanded. Definitely a human shape, secured to the roof rack.
I can’t remember the order of all this. Varanasi is too colourful, intense and memorable to remember the order of it all. Spending most of my time walking up and down the ghats meant overload and I can’t remember the order of it. But there are bodies everywhere. Live ones, dead ones, and some that look like they haven’t decided which side of the that divide they are occupying.
It’s best to get to the ghats early, as you see the place waking up. Devotees performing puja and their morning ablutions are already submerged in the river, freezing at this time of year. These people are very hardy indeed. Many of the early risers are boat operators, and prior to a certain time they’ll not bother you, as they see that neither of us can deal with the interaction just now.
This river, the Ganges, that breathes spiritual life into India is grimy and substantial. It stretches out, mirror calm, the swathe it cuts through Bangladesh & India taking it through Varanasi, considered one of the holiest places in India. Bathing in the river alleviates the weight of sin, and dying in the city allows the deceased to skip the normally accepted steps and achieve the fast track to Nirvana.
Once the morning ceremonies are complete, the harassment from the boat operators is among the first interactions with people on the ghats. They maximise their earnings by packing each boat to the gunwales. Usually I am among the first to get on a boat for a river view, but not in these crowded, rickety things.
But these boats are beautiful, especially in the early morning fog – silent, drifting, pockets of vibrancy afloat, the people and the boats themselves brightly coloured. Some of the boats are already on the move, cutting silently through the dead calm water, the only noise the oars moving in the rowlocks. They drift in and out of the mist that will hang over the river until 10am at least.
This is probably among the most salient impressions one gets of India, this shock of colour in often drab backgrounds. So much of the country is dusty, sandy, red or brown coloured, starkly industrial, or miserably slum-like – the shock of colour from a brightly coloured sari, turban or garish graphic design leaps out at you. The ghats are a promenade, a signpost, a laundromat. A striking image is the sari cloth, metres long, arranged down the steps like a carpet, or the lines of washing strung out in the sun. There seems to be no one in particular looking after this washing, but I suspect if anyone touched it they’d soon find out exactly who owned it.
Indians seem to have a habit of making every space they inhabit serve a public function, and here along the Varanasi ghats it is most obvious. Because this is someone’s living, there is so much commerce here. The couple of days I was here, I walked the ghats relatively early one morning, which seemed to be the day where the masseurs were out in force. What starts as a conversation, seems to end with a handshake, a very long and uncomfortable handshake that goes on too long, then he grabs my hand with both of his and starts massaging me, quite painfully. I am a masseuse he says, you need massage? No sir, I do not as I struggle to pull my hand away. I suspect I would end up bruised and battered had I complied.
There are these little patches of activity, a particular activity in a particular spot. This is where the boats are. Over here, people play a cricket match. Here, there be laundry. Here, cremations happen. Cows mill about here, and sometimes over there. You may lie here to sleep, across the main thoroughfare, along with your 20 equally lethargic friends. This part is for sitting quietly on the steps, contemplating; this part for a group of boys to play a very dangerous game for bystanders where they flick up a piece of wood with another, and then whack it as far as they can.
And naturally, there is the prime attraction, the one that addresses the most macabre curiosity of all, the burning ghats. Harishchandra is the first you come to travelling south to north, and is the secondary to Marnikarnika, where to be cremated is a very high honour. Its shocking, to come across a partially completed cremation, to see a fully formed leg, detached from the cremated body, being picked up and rearranged onto the burning pile. Or to see a recognisable human face disappear behind a wall of flame. But again, it’s very functional – a couple of hundred bodies are cremated along the ghats each day, a production line. Four to five bodies are burning at once, around the clock. I am told that priests, pregnant women and children avoid cremation because they are considered pure, and are weighted down and given over to the river directly.
Crowds of observers, some of whom must be friends and family, stand around mostly silently. It feels strange for this observance to be in relative silence, when Indian existence seems so noisy in the main. I don’t think I could ever stand and watch one of my close ones cremated in this fashion, but the lack of familial ties makes my observation objective, detached. This comes close to my proposed method of despatch for my mortal remains – cremated atop a Viking boat as it is pushed out into a lake. The only disturbance to the quiet is the noise of someone taking photos, despite the fairly universally known prohibition of photography at the cremation ghats. He is challenged, mounts a (farcical) denial, and is marched off under threat of police involvement. At some point, observance feels like voyeurism and I move on.
I happen upon a shoot for an ongoing, well known photography project for a traveller and his anonymous girlfriend. Once a fan, I no longer wish to promote them as they have too much already, and have moved into the realms of falsehood. I can attest to this, as I saw the actual photo shoot and the resultant photos, and the hyper-reality bears little resemblance to what I can see here before me. And there is something obscene – in the middle of this poverty, as the last earthly ceremonies are performed for the dead, they play pantomime, the terrible habit of tourists to dress how they think Indians dress. Indians look on bemusedly, sometimes laughing openly.
Everything is laid out here, all of life, the whole gamut. Eating, sleeping – being nurtured, being scammed, entertained – living, dying. It’s all presented here on this 5 or 6 km stretch, along what is said to be a holy river, the holiest of rivers if you believe that sort of thing. You can spend an afternoon along here and see it all, compacted, accessible. And the attraction of it is that it’s partially repulsive, definitely macabre – we can see ourselves as mere survivors, mere creatures scratching a living, eking out an existence, only to live through all of it and then be gone, placed upon a pyre, our earthly remains returned to the elements from whence they came. And yet, because we are the observers of it, we are removed from it, and therefore it confirms our sense of immortality.
And the body on the roof-rack? It had obviously been flown in to Varanasi for its last holy rites, because this is the road from the airport. It’s being taken to the Ganges, where it will be dipped in the river, laid upon the pyre and consumed, to be returned to the elements of earth, air and water. And driving past it in a tuk-tuk, I am left to wonder who it belonged to, and who is accompanying it on its last earthly trip.