Tuesday, May 8, 2018

River Of Fire And Rebirth

Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world and the beating heart of the Hindu religion. Cutting through the city is the Ganges River, critical to all life in India

We had arranged to take a 5:30 am sunrise boat cruise but when the alarm went off it was easy to ignore. A night cruise to watch the Aarti ceremony from the river was a better option. Again it was a lazy day wandering the bustling streets of Varanasi, but this time we had a mission, Domino's Pizza. We failed.

Our boatman arrived at 6:30 and lead us down to the river. He was working with his two sons and after a bit of untangling of his boats we were off. It was a nice night with a full moon. The slight breeze made the temperature pleasant and we shared this massive boat with only 2 other tourists. Boats of the same size cruised by packed with locals who stared at us. It was embarrassing.

We were 30 minutes in the boat and were making our way to where the Aarti Ceremony would take place. Watching it from the water packing in with the other boats would give us a great view..but we did not stop. As the sun was dipping and night was falling upon us the boat headed downstream. It was then that I notice the fires. We drew closer, eventually stopping just off shore as the entire scene unfolded like a horrific Tim Burton movie.

I counted 12 bonfires, knowing of course that they were funeral pyres. They were layered along the shore with 6 next to the water, 4 a level up near the walkway and 2 on the walkway. There was a fire inside one of the buildings which our guide quickly told us was the eternal flame. This was the flame family members used to start their process.

It was explained that when the body dies it is to be burned within 24 hours. The body is brought to the river where it is dressed in white linen and brightly colored cloth. Once ready the body is carried down to the river to be cleansed then returned to a pre-built pyre of straw and wood. Once ready the fire is set. Here the human body takes about 3 hours to burn to ash. Once complete the ash is taken by a holy man and tossed into the river.

Here are a few fun facts.

- Many poor can not afford the cost of the process so their family members are wrapped in cloth and weighed down my large stones. They are then taken to the middle of the river and tossed over board. At any time there is estimated to be over 100,000 bodies in the middle of the Ganges at this location and it is not uncommon for them to resurface down stream.

- The Aghori Tribe of Varanasi position themselves around the crematorium. They spread ashed on their bodies and when possible resort to cannibalism for the rites of purification when they can find body parts.

- There are 5 types of people can not be ritualized in the cremation ceremony. Priests, pregnant mothers, children under 10, transgenders and any person bitten and killed by a cobra.

- The body is smeared with grease or butter to speed up the burning process.

- Beside the crematorium is a hospice for the dying. Patients are taken there as part of their end of life process and can view the cremations from their death bed.

- Only men take part in the service. We were told that woman's hearts were to soft for the experience

** I did not take any pictures of the cremations as it did not feel right. All these pictures here were taken from a Google picture search. They capture the image and the mood but nothing can match the reality of it. **

The second part of the evening was the Aarti ceremony. From our cluster of boats we could watch the celebrations while kids jumped from boat to boat selling small flowers and candles that they would like and you could place in the water. A holy man was also going from boat to boat blessing people...he bypassed our boat. The locals were in tune with the celebration of bells, fire, music and singing. I had no idea about the religious significance but at one time I leaned back and looked at all the old rickety boats tied together floating on the river. All eyes were staring straight ahead enthralled by the ceremony in front of them. It really did create a trance like atmosphere.

However, my trance was easily broken by what was going on over my right shoulder 6 Ghats or maybe 500 metres away. I could not stop looking at the crematorium, the fires and the religious ritual of death that has been celebrated this way, in this location since 1000 BC. Here death is given the respect it deserves. Beliefs are so strong and so entrenched that "there is no real fear of death because of the belief in rebirth" (words from our Hindu boatman).

I came to Varanasi curious about what I was told and what I would find. I left with my eyes and my mind grasping for my own reality. What did I just witness. I did not cry. I was not afraid. I stood 6 feet away from a dead person being set ablaze. I came upon the Hindu cremation ceremony in all its dark mystery. I was so mesmerized that the guide sounded like he was underwater when he was explaining the ritual it to me. I stared at the dead being cleansed. I watched ashes being scattered. I pondered the thoughts of the soon to be dead as they looked down from their death beds.

At the same time we were watching this massive celebration to life and death. As the night was winding down we walked back along the Ghats. People were bathing in, praying in and swimming in the same water whose currents were carrying the ashes of the just cremated.

Varanasi did do something very important. It reaffirmed that my choice to get out into the world and experience it was the right path for me. The sight of 12 burning fires will never leave me.

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