Burning Ghat: Where You Say Goodbye
Have you been to the burning ghat in India?
We entered Varanasi by overnight train from Delhi. The sleeper class wasn’t the most comfortable, but it safely brought us to Varanasi in 12 hours. We took a desperately needed shower at a guesthouse located right next to a small ghat and had the luxury of taking a nap. Varanasi made me quite excited before I came because of all the exotic scenes. I geared up with my new lens (Nikkor 18-105mm) and entered the famous old city of Varanasi.
After only a few streets away, local people were pointing in a direction and saying “Burning God, that way”. ‘Burning God?’ odd, I thought. The street we stumbled into was ‘Marnikarnika Burning Ghat‘ simply known as ‘burning ghat’. This is the place where people cremate the deceased. We could see the huge pile of wood and big crowd, and huge smoke. Something was definitely going on, most likely a funeral, but I didn’t feel right to be at the place as foreign to the family, and to the culture. A guy wanted to take us to the rooftop of the nearby building to watch the ceremony, but we declined. We went to a few other ghats and went home. So, we almost witnessed the famous ‘burning ghat’.
According to the Rough Guide to India, it is okay to watch the funeral, but absolutely no photography, and be respectful. We decided to try again to visit the burning ghat the next day since watching the funeral is THE thing to do in Varanasi, and in India.
The next day, a group of people was chanting and carrying bamboo structures above their heads in one of the small alleyways. We were eating lassi at a local shop that has been there for 70 years. ‘Maybe they are going to the funeral’, I thought. We were near the burning ghat from yesterday. Just a few minutes later, there was another group of people with the same changing and the bamboo carriage. Only this time, I could see what was on the bamboo.
The body was wrapped in colorful fabric and tied to the bamboo structure.
Three groups of funerals passed, and we followed them. The smell of fire was getting close. Since we knew it was okay to present during the funeral, we looked for a secure spot to stand and observe. Two opposite thoughts in my head were fighting hard. I really wanted to see the important part of the Indian culture, but I didn’t want to see burning dead men, to be honest. I’m not so good at dealing with shocking scenes. My heart was pounding, my leg was moving forward, but my nose refused to smell anything. Once again, I realized ‘I’m not so good dealing with death.’
We saw a narrow staircase leading up to the top of a small building. It was snowing ashes (of wood I hope), halfway up to the top. We found the right place; this was where everything was happening. I felt the strong flam against my chic. I turned my body away from the flame and hid in the corner of the small rooftop. My head was spinning, my heart was pounding so fast, and my curiosity was about to explode. ‘This is it’, I thought, still turning my body away from what was going on.
I slowly turned my head around and squinted at the flame. There they were, three wrapped bodies on the pile of wood, burning. The bodies were still recognizable since the ceremony had just started. They were wrapped tight with fabric, so I could recognize the figure of them. It was one of those moments, that I didn’t want to see but I couldn’t stop looking at it. It was morbid, but the ritual was fascinating. They will be sprinkled on the Ganges after they burn to ashes.
The place to witness the circle of life
We mention dead in a casual phrase like “25 places to visit before you die”. We live life only once, and that’s why we have to cherish the opportunities we’ve been given. Watching the cremation without any border, it was clearer, that the circle of life goes around. Mufasa delivered the same message to Simba in Lion King, The Circle of Life. Lions eat herbivores, become earth when they die, grass grows from the earth, and the grass will be eaten by the herbivores. It is the complete circle. As an amateur astronomer, I understand well about the nature. Stars are born millions of years ago from the smallest atom, and they explode at the end of their life. We couldn’t even see the light for years because the Universe is unimaginably big. Less than 100 years of human life is like a dot to this universe, and we are the size of an atom compared to this cosmic world. Just like that, Indians live their life around the Ganges, and they are going back where they came from.
I went to my grandmother’s funeral a few years back and watched the cremation. She was in the coffin, and we got a jar of what was left of her after a few hours. We sprinkled her ashes up in the mountain right near a tree. The whole process was quite sad, but I liked the idea of her living again as a tree. Now we can feel a bit of my grandmother from the living tree.
Maybe that’s how Indians think too. They buried their loved ones in the river Ganges, and they filled their spirit by bathing in the same water.
How to cope with life and death is different in many parts of the world, but the message is always the same: life circles around.