My Varanasi Tour with a Shiva Devotee: The Burning Ghat
A procession approached us, headed to Varanasi’s burning ghat, while we were drinking our chai. It was a group of people surrounding a smaller group of pallbearers. On the litter that they bore was a body prepared for the funeral rites, decked in shiny orange cloth shot with gold and bright magenta.
“To the cremation?” I queried. “Who is it? It seems fancy.” A person of wealth, my guide said.
I watched the group hurry onwards, bearing the special pilgrim of the burning ghat.
- The Burning Ghat of Varanasi
- Witnessing a Brahmin Cremation Pyre
- ‘Muslims are honest people!’
- Panchaganga Ghat
- The Fantastic Blue Lassi Shop
- Carbon offsetting information to Varanasi, India
The Burning Ghat of Varanasi
Taking the cue, Najindran rose and led me a little way to the little ledge, where we could watch the proceedings of Manikarnika Ghat unseen, and without disturbing anyone.
There was another group there with us. A local man, narrating to a foreign couple. We looked on at the rows of pyres on the burning platform visible to us. Some pyres were being set up for a new cremation, and others were nearly done. Attendants were collecting bones and ashes from yet others.
The burning ghat is separated by caste, said my guide. The lowest caste cremations are in the middle. The upper caste cremations are on a high platform away to the side from where we were. The middle ones are burned close to the Ganges, on platforms by its edge.
I watched as the fires crept across to engulf the bodies, crackling sounds on the wind. The blaze of heat rose even up to where we were. Occasionally, the pyre sank into itself as the wood was consumed.
It did not feel morbid. Though the rites were completely different from my own customs, the atmosphere simply felt like any funeral. Pensive, even peaceful.
Contemplative of the final journey which we all must submit to.
The scam of the burning ghat
The other group grew restive, and left first.
When they left, Najindran told me that some of the things the other guide said were not true. For example, it was not true that there are hospices in Varanasi specifically for pilgrims to live in old age, waiting to die in the holy city. He befriends visitors in part because he did not like to see this, and reiterated that this day no one would hassle me for money, since I was with him.
It was true. It had not happened since I agreed to follow him. The amnesty from being hassled by touts made a tremendous difference to my stress levels. I felt a lot more relaxed.
The ingredients of Hindu cremation
After a while, my gaze turned to other parts of the scene. I noticed that new arrivals often made a detour to the side, where there were sheds stacked high with clay pots and roots, or kindling of some kind.
I asked Najindran about it, and where the wood for the burning ghat came from. Just like in Pattaya, I wondered if the source of so much wood was at least sustainable.
The wood comes from northern forests far away, was Najindran’s vague answer.
Oh well. I did not expect him to know more. Most laypeople, even in developed countries, rarely question where the resources that enable their customs come from, or how.
Turning back to the sheds, he explained that aside from purchasing the wood and a clay pot, the family of the deceased would typically buy optional items – sandalwood and ghee. He told me they were ingredients in the burning. I suppose the fragrant wood was the equivalent of buying flowers to lay on a grave.
Men and women burn differently?
Growing restive myself, I asked how long it takes to burn a body. I knew they would get ash in the end, which they would scatter into the Ganges. But in practical terms, using just a traditional wood pyre, how much time until the burning is done?
About 3 hours, said my guide. Then, the whole body turns to ash. All of it, except very specific bones. And they’re different ones for men and women.
That got me curious. Really? Which ones?
The ribcage for a man, and the pelvic bone for a woman. Man’s ribcage is very strong. It will not burn away in 3 hours. But for woman, it is the pelvic bone. These bones they will recover afterwards, and throw into the Ganges with the ashes.
I was sceptical. I suppose women may have stronger pelvic bones due to carrying a baby to term. But I was not sure if Najindran was just passing on a myth.
But he simply sat, quite serious, watching the burning with a quiet respect.
‘Would you like to go up to the brahmin platform?’ Najindran suddenly asked.
Witnessing a Brahmin Cremation Pyre
I was so close I could have tripped onto the body at the brahmin pyres.
I could not believe where I was. Right on the VIP platform, where they cremate the highest caste deceased. I’d not read about this being at all possible. I hoped this really was ok and that nobody gets in trouble.
I wondered why Najindran offered to take me. Was it because I seemed genuinely interested? And maybe because it was low risk? My pan-Asian looks do allow me to blend in across a wide region of Asia. Perhaps he felt I could pass sufficiently for local that it would not draw any attention.
So there I was, seated as discreetly as I could, on a rough sort of bleachers set up under a makeshift awning, with Najindran and some local men who seemed like they belonged there.
Cremation rites in Manikarnika Ghat
A new body was carried onto the rooftop platform, wound in colourful, shiny golden and crimson shrouds. The cloths were unwound, the body laid onto the pyre.
A man in a white winding robe took the shrouds, and stuffed them into a hollow in the pyre. The eldest son, whispered Najindran. He added sandalwood into the pyre, and ghee over the body.
The son of the deceased then lit the fire. “The flame is taken from a sacred fire, an old fire started by Shiva,” my guide said, eyes on the pyre. Er… started how? I wondered. He replied, and as far as I could gather, the answer was ‘spontaneous combustion’.
To the side, a different pyre was just about done, and I saw the ending of the rites. The son threw a clay pot of water backward onto the pyre, ending the ritual. At times, he seemed a bit unsure about what to do. Quite natural, remarked my guide. Onlookers – like the men seated with us – would coach him if the responsible person seemed to get the ritual wrong.
And finally, after watching for a while, I saw that it was true.
Men’s ribcages remain at the end, but not women’s. And women’s pelvic bones were likewise left unburned.
Cremation health and safety
The burning pyres before us radiated a blazing heat right in our face. It was hot work, taking care of these final rites.
But even so, for me, the heat was still bearable. The smoke though, burned my eyes a bit – I was glad for the balaclava of my buff headband. Thankful for my native heat tolerance, I observed the proceedings from eyes squinted nearly shut.
Perhaps the funeral workers should get face masks. This much inhalation of particulates, day after day, could not be good for their respiratory health.
As if on cue, Najindran lit a cigarette. I nearly lectured him about its dangers, but then I suddenly recalled my tour guide in Kathmandu Durbar Square. I remembered him mentioning that Shiva was also the patron deity of smoking – not entirely surprising for the Lord of Destruction.
Would it be undiplomatic to dissuade a pious Shiva worshipper from smoking? I was lost in the ramifications of these questions I had never thought to think before. Diplomacy is hard.
I decided to say nothing. It seemed pointless anyway, considering the wood smoke and cremation particulates wafting about all of us.
All that matters in the end
I turned to look down upon the far platform by the river. Another body was arriving, accompanied by an honour guard. The trumpet sounded the last honours below.
Najindran turned to see what I was looking at. At my questioning look, he said, “It’s a policeman’s body.” That would explain the honour guard.
He continued to speak about the rites, about the life that was lived. That it didn’t matter what our differences were. In the end, everyone ends up here, on the burning ghat. It doesn’t even matter which platform your body is taken to.
I listened quietly. This was the confluence between faiths.
Najindran continued, in his melodic, hypnotic speech. “Happiness and deeds – karma – is all that matters in the end.”
On that we can agree.
‘My other favourite temple’
I was not going to wait the full 3 hours. There was no need. I had already had the privilege of observing the different phases of the funeral rites.
So we decided to continue the tour. My guide would show me the other temple he cherishes.
We walked across Manikarnika Ghat. Najindran pointed in passing to the baths where the eldest sons would bathe after completing the cremation rites. Also the spot where Parvati, the consort of Shiva, was supposed to have dropped her earring.
I don’t remember what the temple looked like from the outside. But Najindran brought me inside. There in a deep well, we looked down upon a gaily decorated feature. An ancient Shiva lingam of Varanasi.
This is special, said my guide. As ancient as the city. He gazed intently at it, as only a true devotee could. Do you not feel it? It’s the power of Shiva’s city. It’s energy – that’s what makes Varanasi special.
He seemed to meditate upon the lingam for a moment, rapt in the energy he could feel.
‘Muslims are honest people!’
I was glad to be shown this city by a real devotee, who spoke of his faith with the passionate honesty of a semi-evangelist. So I finally told Najindran that I am Muslim.
His face lit up. Surprisingly, he beamed with pleasure and held out his hand to me, giving me a firm handshake.
It turned out that he works with Muslims for his day job. His boss was one. “Muslims are honest people!” he asserted approvingly. It was an odd thing to note, I thought. But at least it was a good response. I was relieved.
Given his new information, he decided that we should go to the mosque.
At first, I thought he meant Gyanvapi Mosque, which I saw on the map my hostel gave me. But he struck out towards the ghats again, and kept a path along it, going north.
We left the crowds behind, and the ghats became completely empty the closer we got to Panchaganga Ghat.
Ironically, this far less popular ghat was much nicer. For one thing, there was a sort of fence at the top of the steps, which had circular cattle blockers for the pedestrian access. People pass through, but not cows.
I had thought of installing this immediately upon seeing the cattle entering into the old city of Varanasi and passing waste in the extremely tight alleyways. Or at least at the burning ghat, which was a high traffic area, with flame and smoke and processions bearing the deceased up and down steps. Seeing it at Panchaganga baffled me even more, since it was clearly a possible and acceptable thing to install.
I concluded then that the obstacle to city upgrades was likely not a deficit of solutions, but more a people issue – not unlike much of Southeast Asia.
Finally Najindran climbed up the steps, ascending to a large building with a large dome and dome-topped minarets. We emerged high over the city, in a spacious courtyard.
Like Jantar Mantar, Dharahara Mosque has a sign out front by the Archaeological Survey marking it as a historical site of India. I was a little envious of this, since Malaysia seemed not to appreciate our landmark heritage buildings, which are in constant danger of being demolished for some vacuous purpose.
The mosque was empty though, when we came. I wondered if it was only a historical site by now, and no longer used. But my guide said it still was, on occasion.
There, in the serenity of the compound, he confessed to me a friendship with a Muslim girl, but that her parents disapproved of them communicating. He did not understand why. We are not doing anything bad.
I simply listened. There were likely far too many unseen issues for me to offer an opinion. Still, I wished more people were able to think at the level of confluences, rather than at the level of division.
We don’t have to inherit the injuries of our forebears.
The Fantastic Blue Lassi Shop
Finally, my guide asked if there was anywhere else that I wanted to go to.
I remembered a lassi shop that came highly recommended by my hostel. But I was not quite clear what exactly made it great. Obviously, I’d like to find out. So I asked Najindran if he knew where it was.
Of course he did. We walked back into the old warrens of Varanasi.
Varanasi is a strange sort of city. Her random traces of beauty, graceful domes and carved columns and cornices in upper stories of old buildings, swallowed by a shell of banal urban jungle. In a way, it was not very different from Angkor, before it was rescued from the rainforest.
By the end of this unusual tour, I began to get used to the feel of the streets, and began to notice specific signage painted onto the walls at intersections. Brown Bread Bakery. Underground Cafe. Blue Lassi shop. Perhaps with time, I could get the hang of this, the maze of the old city.
Why it’s fantastic
The Blue Lassi shop was just a little indent into a building. Its street frontage was open, and a man was literally hand churning the lassi right then and there. We were motioned in, towards low tables and chairs for those who would like to have their lassi in slightly more comfortable setting. Many locals seemed to simply wait out front and eat the lassi while standing.
And then we got the menu.
Now, there’s lassi in Malaysia, because we have a lot of really good Indian restaurants. Invariably it’s mango lassi, although occasionally you might find slightly more variety – strawberry maybe.
But the Blue Lassi menu was the best I’ve ever seen. It had every combination of a wide array of flavours ranging from fruits like apple, banana, and pomegranate, to even flavours like coffee and chocolate. Pages and pages of every combination – single flavours, two-flavour combos, even three. It was so hard to choose.
Finally I settled on a pomegranate lassi and my guide chose a banana concoction.
The curious clay cups of Varanasi
When they arrived, our lassi came served in clay cups. There was also a flat tiny spoon made of a woody substance. I thought that was awesome – it was not plastic! We tucked in, and it really was very, very good. I considered getting another one.
Smash! Startled, I looked up to see what broke. That was when I noticed the large vat set in front of the shop. Another man, finishing his lassi, tossed his clay cup in the vat, where it presumably smashed to pieces.
Huh. It never occurred to me that clay cups would be disposable.
Farewell, my friend.
Najindran was true to his word. No one harassed me throughout, and at no point did he ask me for money – rather, he continually assured me of the contrary. Not only that, he did not seem entirely pleased that I paid for his lassi, as if it degraded the sanctity of his deed that day.
That day began with me feeling first hand why first-time travellers to ‘stereotypical’ India often say that she is so ‘much’ – so overwhelming that she feels impenetrable. Even as a Southeast Asian, who has travelled to the dense population hotspots of the region, I feel it too.
But on this trip it seems I was spectacularly lucky. The day ended with a tour by a local person, who took me to see his Kashi in a way that I could not have seen myself. A tour of Hinduism’s most sacred city, guided by a devotee who spoke of its aura as something he could feel channeling into himself.
I felt a bit guilty disappointing him, not responding as his previous guests who seemed to have been specifically looking for a non-Christian spirituality. Like the astrologer, he couldn’t quite fathom that I’m at least as interested in the drainage system and crank wells in the area, and the bright green parakeets high up on the mosque’s arches, as the temples and the burning ghat of Varanasi.
Still, my introduction to Varanasi served to explain something important about the city – and perhaps about much of India. It is not a place where you find serenity.
Rather, serenity is something you pack with you and bring here as provision – or learn to cultivate from within yourself.
Carbon offsetting information to Varanasi, India
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Varanasi via Delhi produces carbon emissions of approximately 3,573 lbs CO2e. It costs about $18 to offset this.
If you’re curious about Varanasi’s burning ghat, please remember these are real funerals for people. Please be respectful and don’t crash any funerals!