Monday, September 27, 2010

A Life & Death Decision

After finishing our visit to Agra, we were toiling over a few options moving forward...

Rishikesh - Hard core hippy haven made famous by the Beatles decades ago, and the world capital of all things yoga and meditation related.

Varanasi - Arguably the holiest of all places in India, set along the sacred River Ganges and home to ritual activities one could only imagine.

Goa - Beachfront party paradise and maximum chill-out destination on the Arabian Sea.

I had my hesitations about Rishikesh. It has the makings of a really cool place to settle down for a while, but also has the potential of drawing one of our least favorite types of travelers. I worried that our vegan dinner conversations would be littered with musings such as "Oh my god, you haven't had your shakras aligned yet??" from wannabe hippies in poofy pants with newly developed dreadlocks. As it turned out, recent monsoon rains had began to flood the region and folks were being evacuated, so that made our decision pretty easy.

Goa sounds like a great spot to decompress after experiencing the more cultural aspects of India. So, while on our list, it can definitely wait. And with that, we were on a 13-hour overnight train to 'The City of Life'.

Nothing can really prepare you for a visit to Varanasi. It exudes an intensity unlike any place we have visited yet. Spirituality, poverty, generosity, aggression, compassion, celebration and mourning. The vibrant soul of this, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, is palpable.

Dozens of ghats, broad stairways leading into the water, line the river's edge. Many with their own unique purpose, this is where the city's dwellers come to pray, bathe, brush their teeth, wash their buffalos, launder their clothes, defecate. No joke. It is believed to be the provider of life, the grantor of salvation, the Mother and protector, divine in every sense of the word. It is also a particularly privileged place to be cremated.

Manikarnika. Varanasi's main 'burning ghat'. At any time of day or night, funeral processions are making their way towards this sacred spot. Wrapped in muslin and covered by colorful cloth, bodies are carried by their (male) loved ones to Mankiarnika to be burned and released into the river. (Females aren't allowed to join the ceremony, as their crying would inhibit a "peaceful transition".)

Warning: This gets graphic.

Reece and I had the opportunity to watch the intimate scene unfold from a nearby rooftop balcony. On a cement platform at the river's edge, bodies were simply lined up awaiting their turn. Piles of wood were assembled, the deceased were placed on top, and after a few more logs were carefully in place, it was lit aflame. No less than eight people would be burning at one time, while smoke billowed thick and clusters of relatives stood somberly by.

The thin layer of muslin, of course, incinerates quickly. So before long, feet and sometimes heads would be exposed. At one point we watched a man probe the pyre with a stick of bamboo to keep the fire going, then flip two charred calves over into the fresh flames. Images from this day will undoubtedly haunt me for the rest of my life. I walked away from the experience not knowing exactly how to feel.

Reece found it peaceful. A "born from ashes, returning to ashes" sort of thing. In his opinion, it was so much more natural than burying you family member six feet below ground. And this, I can agree with. The experience was definitely defined by more of a spiritual silence than a grotesque voyeurism. But I just couldn't get past the idea of seeing my loved one in that way. I shudder at the thought. I guess that's why they don't allow women in there.

What we both found incredibly disturbing, were the men wading in the waters below with large shallow pans. That's right, "panning" through the dirt and ashes in their underwear in search of valuable jewelry that the corpses may have been adorned with. If that doesn't bring you bad karma, I don't know what does.

For obvious reasons, it is considered incredbily offensive to take photos at the burning ghats. It is considered slightly less offensive to google an image that some other shmuck took.

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