Posted by: Ciaran | February 16, 2010

An early morning boat trip on the Ganges in Varanasi, India

It is before 6am in Varanasi, and the darkness is beginning to lift.  The mist clings to the ground and the drizzle, which you barely feel coming down, seeps into your clothes.

A man unties the boats on the banks of the Ganges

As I climb into the shaky wooden boat with a dozen or so other tourists, the residents of the city slowly emerge onto the bank of the River Ganges.  We begin to row away, with a boy of 17 at the helm propelling us south.

Early risers take to the water, despite the weather

“The water is so clean,” he tells me as he cuts through the backwash of the other boats.  “It provides water for the whole city, and it is holy water.”  He is correct about one thing; the water is holy, as the Hindus believe the Ganges is a god.

But clean it is not.  The water laps against refuse on the banks, piles of plastic bottles slowly being eroded into the sacred river.  Feet away, water buffalo lounge in the water, loping along and swimming more elegantly than may be expected.

The refuse-strewn riverbank

The dark has lifted now, but there is still a greyness in the moist air.  More and more people are on the banks, slowly stripping away layers of clothing and revealing pasty and often underfed bodies.

Men immerse themselves in the holy water

The women take to the water fully-clothed, and immerse themselves completely, whereas the men unselfconsciously take to the water with their modesty barely covered, and often swim a little before submerging themselves.

Female bathers in their wonderfully colourful saris

One man swims across the front of our boat, smiling at me, then dives under the water.  He comes up about 10 feet away and squirts a stream of water delicately from his mouth.  It is off-brown and slimy, distinguishable even at distance and in bad light.

We stop by the electric crematorium, where the city’s poorest and most luckless souls are cremated at a cost of about £10.  It is bleak and dour; it looks like a factory, and in many ways it is, burning bodies 24 hours a day.

The electric crematorium

At least there is some consolation for anyone who dies in Varanasi.  The boatman, who has the weather-beaten face of a much older man, says: “People come from all over India to die in Varanasi.  Anyone who dies in this city goes straight to nirvana.”

We begin to row upstream, looking portentously at the eastern bank where we are told there are dangerous animals – including tigers, supposedly – lurking behind the tree line.  The western bank is now alive with people; incandescently coloured saris are soaked as women lower themselves into the water, never breaking off their rapid but quiet talking.

A view of Dasaswamedh Ghat, the main ghat in Varanasi

We pass the ghat where we boarded the boat, and head on to the traditional crematorium.  On the banks of the Ganges, a beautiful tiered temple burns an eternal flame which is said not to have gone out in 4,000 years.  On the steps, bodies are cremated throughout the day and night.

A body, wrapped in white cloth, about to be cremated at the burning ghat

Perhaps nowhere more than here is India’s caste system evident.  The steps delineate the social standing of those who have died; the nearer the river, the lower the caste. 

The boat comes to a halt, and there is a tense silence.

A body is carried down to the water’s edge, only metres away from us, and then held below the water by the pallbearers for a few seconds before it is carried to the pyre for the final rituals to be performed.  The sandalwood is then lit, and the family members trickle back towards the temple, looking on mournfully.

The body is bathed in the Ganges before cremation

Not everyone is cremated; religious men, pregnant women, children under 10, lepers and those killed by the bite of a cobra are assumed to go straight to nirvana, and they are instead tied to heavy stones and dropped in the Ganges.

As our boat sidles away, I see a shape in the water.  I ask the boatman to take us nearer.  Fixed upside-down in what looked like a seated position was the wrinkled body of a man, his skin clearly slackening in the water.

A dead body in the river

“This is very good luck for you,” says the boy, letting go of his paddle and tapping my arm cheerfully.  This is far from nirvana, I think to myself.

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