There is a myth about Jerusalem, namely that beneath its surface there lies a magnet. And this magnet attracts Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious nuts. We flew into the city of Veranasi this week. We were transferred to our hotel which was unlike any of our previous accommodations. One might call it low end, but the location is rather spectacular inasmuch as we are rather high up overlooking the Hindu "holy of holies", the River Ganges.
Our guide explained that centuries ago Maharajas built palaces along the river of rivers. As you look up from the shoreline, the remnants of those palaces remain, stately towers that once commanded the view. However they have deteriorated badly. This area remained prime real estate until a century ago, but since then the elite have moved elsewhere.
The streets just behind the facade are tiny alleyways, in some ways similar to the twisting lanes of Jerusalem's Old City. But in addition to pushing crowds of residents and pilgrims, motor scooters and motorcycles roar in starts and stops and more interestingly if not confounding are the myriad of cows that meander and/or stand or lie wherever they will leaving their fecal deposits along the way. (As you ply the streets and alleys, you want to look up to see the buildings, temples, shrines and fascinating people, but you do so at great risk of tracking on your shoes that better left in the streets.)
But I digress...Hindus, Buddhists and Jains alike revere the Ganges, for Hindus the traditional home of the god Shiva, the destroyer of evil, portrayed more often than any of the other gods. If you have ever viewed Hindu art, you will have seen a figure with leg raised in a dancing position with four or more arms often in a ring of fire. What you may not have noticed is that Shiva is simultaneously stepping on a human figure, a representation of evil.
Pilgrims come to Varanasi because they want to bathe in the river at least once in their lifetimes. They come throughout the day, men as well as women in the freezing waters of the early morning to fulfill this religious obligation. They come at the end of their lives or are brought here by next of kin to be cremated on the banks of the River Ganges. Thus there are many elderly who come to live out the end of their days here. Many are extremely poor and find space in a local ashram and rely on free food or begging to live.
Our first night here we went out on a small boat where we could view the families bringing their loved ones to the cremation pyre. The body wrapped in sheets is carried down the steps by the closest relatives on a stretcher. The body is put in the Ganges. The oldest son, guided by the family barber, since priests we were told don't like to be involved, purchases the necessary wood. When the fire is aflame the body is put in place. Only men actively participate and there is no expression of emotion. The burning takes three to four hours at the end of which the ashed and remaining bones are put in the Ganges. For each body a separate pyre is arranged. There can be as many as 15 cremations occurring simultaneously and they come 24 hours a day, seven days a week without prior notice or reservations. All this takes place amid the cows and dogs that flow freely through the area. There are two separate areas along the river where this takes place. For a visitor the sight is transfixing. All is done with great devotion. Thus it is believed that the dead gain freedom from the cycle of life and death. (Our guide told us that although a Hindu, he was not a believer, did not engage in Hindu ritual, but when his father died, he fulfilled all of the rituals as prescribed.) Certainly not all cremations take place in Varanasi. There are a few other places along the Ganges where cremations take place as well as cities and towns all over India.
Quite apart from the cremations and bathing, we witnessed public Hindu rituals that involved Brahman priests, ceremoniously blowing on a conch shell (like a shofar), with a ritual of music and other surrounded by hundreds of pilgrims. We saw people who had come in groups to commemorate their ancestors. There are various strange people who are known to have renunciated all connections to all exterior aspects of life, ascetics, those who believe in magic and spirits.
It's all actually not only quite a sight, but in some very profound sense very moving. I have never experienced a place like this before and it is quite difficult to express what the experience is in words.