It’s Friday 13th and the day that I meet up with my father for the first time since he took me to Heathrow airport 3 ½ months ago. I’m excited to be able to have a face-to-face catch up with him over a pint of beer. He sends me an address of his luxurious hotel and a random man and motorbike ride later, I am able to hunt him down.
We decide to take a walk down to the River Ganges to a particular spot which was a hotspot for Indian funerals to take place. This consisted of carrying down a body in beautifully coloured fabrics and placing them into the holy water (River Ganges) for around 5 minutes to then bring them back up and place them on top of some arranged logs of wood. More logs then cover the body and then set alight by the next man in their family generation, normally the eldest son. In the small area where up to around ten separate bodies can be burning at any given point, women are not allowed to enter. This is a ‘health and safety’ rule created 15 years previous when a women got so emotional to see her deceased husband burning that she started crying (which is forbidden) and then eventually jumped into the fire herself. And so because of this, all women and their sensitive souls must only look on from a distance.
Even though we were ‘allowed’ closer, my father and I decided to sit on a set of steps in the distance to observe the rituals for this sacred place. It surprised us both to see how this most holy place in the world wasn’t quite as we had expected it to be. With thousands of people traveling across country to ensure that their dear friends or family members get the best possible crossing onto the other side by having such services by the holy River Ganges, you would have thought that this would be a clean, bright, well-structured place. But instead all we saw was dirt. It appeared that logs were placed directly on top of previous separate ceremonies and there was cattle and dogs which would jump in and around the areas where the bodies were being cleansed in the river but also being burnt. The aches of wood and body would be blown into the river, which meant that a thick layer of ash cover the surface. Leftover and un-burnt parts of body were also thrown into the river, which made me feel sick inside to see two dogs fighting over something they found in the waters. I was also given the information that ‘pure bodies’ weren’t ever burnt and were instead wrapped in their cloth and attached to a heavy rock type item. They would then be taken out in a boat and dropped in the middle of the waters until they hit the seabed, to which they would stay. A pure body is one of a child, a women who is pregnant or those of a nun or priest. Just looking upon all the children who were happy to jump into the river with their friends made me queasy to just wonder how many bodies were just beneath them.
The amount of dirt which filled this righteous city of Varanasi surprised me less when it came to my attention that on average 180 bodies are cremated per day. And the majority of these aren’t from the locals. With these vast amounts and their families and friends travelling such distances, you can imagine how much littering and lack of respect for the city they would also end up bringing with them. What shocked me even more was to find out that the building directly behind where all this was taking place, was actually a building full of people who were old or sick and just ‘waiting to die’. It was a dreary old black building with plenty of open windows. I could only imagine what a depressing place that would be to stay in. You would just be overlooking your future on a daily basis, waking up to the smell of your future and hearing the sounds of it too.