Visiting a Burning Ghat in Varanasi

VARANASI, India — Following my early-morning boat ride on the Ganga and a brief monkey encounter, I walked back upstream along the river to have a look at one of the burning ghats.

Dogs and goats keep the locals company. At top, firewood of varying quality and cost are stacked high. (Photos by Bruno J. Navarro)

The first thing pedestrians heading down toward the Manikarnika Ghat might encounter — after greetings from a few goats, natch — is the faint smell of burning sandalwood, followed by the sight of logs, dark and twisted, arranged in piles of varying heights up to 25 feet. Goats and dogs dot the landscape.

The sounds were of wheelbarrows groaning under the weight of their wooden loads, creaking wheels and human voices speaking in serious tones, with an occasional ringing of handbells in the distance.

Of all the places to die, be cremated and have one’s ashes scattered, this was it — according to Hinduism.

The more I read, the less I am able to explain the complexity of the why of it all. Wikipedia writes:

No place along her banks is more longed for at the moment of death by Hindus than Varanasi, the Great Cremation Ground, or Mahashmashana. Those who are lucky enough to die in Varanasi, are cremated on the banks of the Ganga, and are granted instant salvation. If the death has occurred elsewhere, salvation can be achieved by immersing the ashes in the Ganga. If the ashes have been immersed in another body of water, a relative can still gain salvation for the deceased by journeying to the Ganga, if possible during the lunar “fortnight of the ancestors” in the Hindu calendar month of Ashwin (September or October), and performing the Shraaddha rites.

Among the cultures I’ve encountered throughout my travels, I’ve been fascinated with the rituals, depictions and focus on death and the afterlife. In my ancestral homeland of Peru, the anniversary of a loved one’s death becomes an all-day graveside family reunion and celebration of the deceased’s life. In Paris, the skeleton-filled catacombs beneath the city’s street served as a reminder of how we are all equal in death. In Bali, small offerings to the spirits are set out several times a day in beautiful, hand-crafted trays made of banana leaves and containing rice, cigarettes, flowers.

In Varanasi, or at least on the ghats, it is all around you as a very practical, matter-of-fact industry that operates day in, day out.

Periodically, a group of five or six people appear from from the city’s alley-like streets, carrying a body wrapped in a white sheet and adorned with marigold garlands. They descend the steps, then wind their way through the maze of woodpiles and disappear, all while plumes of smoke rise from the funeral pyres turning flesh and bone to ash and cinders.

The ever-present nature of death — to which these few square meters of concrete, wood, fire and water are a monument — is the counterpoint to a celebration of life that should exist in each of our days.

Goats greet visitors at Manikarnika Ghat.
Woodpiles dominate the landscape at Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, India.



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