Monday, 18 July 2011

Varanasi - cremation site and river Ganges

The river Ganges is the most important river in India. The river runs from East to West and Borders Varanasi on the East side.

The river is sacred to the Hindu population and is used for prayer, transport, washing and death rituals.

Last night we went to the Hindu prayer ritual on the river. It is conducted by seven priests. The priests are all young men who are in training at the temples. They are chosen for their youth and energy as the ritual is extremely physical and would exhaust an older priest. We did, however see and older priest perform the ritual in a smaller shrine this morning and we could see his movements were not as exaggerated as the young priests. We travelled to the ceremony by ric shaws.

The seven priests stand on low tables covered with magenta coloured petals and have a bowl of water from the Ganges, a conch shell which they sound at intervals. A fan is used to cool the deity down and there is also Candles and Frankincense. The Frankincense is used to ward off other spirits so that the mind can focus on praying to the river and giving thanks. There are lotus shaped candles floated down the river which are used to call upon the god. The gods cannot be summoned from human will. They need a medium to go through such as fire.

There is a lot of chanting and use of the water, incense, shell and fan. There are people sat in boats and we wondered if, when the current was lower these boats would set sail. There are a great many pilgrims who make this trip sometimes once in a lifetime. There are also a great many beggars and street hawkers who are constantly trying to sell you postcards, necklaces, metal sun shapes with bells hanging off, hand massages, really the list is endless. This does detract somewhat from the spiritual feel of the place although one cannot help but feel sorry for these people who have nothing.

The passage that bought us to the Ganges was very interesting. We went first by bus up to a lay-by where our guide had arranged some ric-shaw men to be waiting for us. Then we went by ric shaw to a large busy roundabout which was jam packed with people. Imagine the equivalent of getting off of your bicycle in the middle of the road at Oxford Circus to then continue walking down the road whilst motorbikes, ric shaws, tuc Tucs all try and mow you down along with a million other people including street hawkers and beggars. Yum. Well that was us.

Once we had arrived vaguely in one piece the next job was to climb up some steep steps. Get confronted by a cow with huge horns and then to climb up some more steps to a wonderful view. The kids were all told constantly to sit down as they might fall off the edge but in the end we all settled down and enjoyed the experience.

We then had the walk back up with the constant harassment of beggars and hawkers to contend with before meeting our ric shaw men again up a dark alley way. After picking our way through the cow dung thatbis covering the streets we mounted our ric shaws and were off to the hotel.

The evening meal was delicious. Curry of course. I then Went to bed as soon as I could as we had a 4.30 a.m wake up call to cope with to get us ready to leave at 5 to go to the river Ganges again to see the sunrise and watch the pilgrims bathing in the river which was actually a disturbing sight as the river is full to the brim of ashes and effluent.

We walked to the river and for once, between 5 and 6 the streets were much calmer and there was hardly any traffic. Sat by the sides of the road were many women with mats laid out in front of them. On the mats were twigs, some with leaves on the ends. I am not sure of the name of the plant but this is what the Indian people use to brush their teeth in the morning. It was very interesting to see the difference between. The street people here and at home. The people here were quite civilised in their morning ablutions. Most people were rising around 6 and were found either brushing their teeth with twigs, urinating into the open sewers that line the streets, sitting watching the world go by or Drinking chai from terracotta pots. There are open stand pipes with taps where people were washing and i found it quite moving to see everyday rituals for caring for ones self and personal hygeine being quietly carried on in the street. There were whole families collecting at basins with taps to wash them selves or utensils. These people are obviously extremely poor and many do not even have shelter, but no one is rolling around drunk or on drugs, in comparison to the tramps on our streets in London!

We walked on down to the Ganges and watched the pilgrims bathing, there was a priest there sat on a low table to bless anyone who wanted to be blessed. There was also a shrine in the wall of one of the Hindu gods and this is where we saw the old priest performing the rituals that the seven younger priests had performed the evening before.

We then walked to the cremation site passing a long line of beggars who were waiting for the free chai which was being handed out. They were also waiting for another man who was giving them each a coin. I am not sure who he was or where the money was from and our guide only said that " the poor are given a little money each day.". We then had to literally walk into the traffic mob handed in order to get across the road before continuing up a weaving mass of alleyways which were lined liberally with cow pats and dog turds. There were cows everywhere and the mangiest dogs. The dogs would have been better being put down to be honest as many were lame or had gaping open wounds. But as the idea is live and let live they are left to live and probably suffer.

Finally we reached the cremation site. It is surrounded by large wooden logs on which there were lots of monkeys and even mangier dogs fighting ( not each other. The dogs were the only ones fighting. ) The air was thick with the ash from the funeral pyre which we could not see at present, and all of our eyes were stinging and watering. The smell was unpleasant but I couldn't say it was a smell if burning flesh. This was probably because the body that was burning at that time was nearly burned and when we got closer we saw the fire rackers raking up the ashes to put into th river Ganges.

The crematorium operates 24 hours a day and seven days a week. When someone dies the family wash the body. They then lay a White shroud over the body before placing them on a wooden " ladder" construction. The body is then wrapped in a shroud depending on who they are. Yellow for a man. Red for a married woman whose husband is still alive. White for children and widows, gold for very old or holy men. If a man dies his eldest son shaves off his moustache in honour of his father. Women are not allowed to the cremation site to honour the dead although today when we saw a family with their dead father the mother was present which our guide was not happy about at all!

The body is carried to the cremation site strapped to the ladder construction and because of the heat and tradition the body must be burned within a few hours of the person dying. The family does have to obtain a certificate from the doctor to show the guy registering deaths at the site. The family we saw carried their fathers body to the waters edge and immersed the body into the water. We left at this point, it had felt wrong to watch up until then anyway but also fascinating to observe such a sacred ritual taking place. Two things which were quite disturbing as well were that even amidst the heat and the smoke there was still a guy trying to flog postcards and another with necklaces. We also found out to our cost that you cannot talk to anyone at all without them trying to get money out of you. One of the fire rakers was hanging around attempting to show us where to stand even though our guide had already shown us. He was telling us about working there and his living conditions and that he had no family etc etc. He then, predictably I suppose asked us for money and when we refused he swore loudly at us telling us to "F***off". Which we happily did. I couldn't believe that people actually in paid employment who are supposed to be at work would beg for money and also speak to people, who are innocently being shown around your place of work, in such a way. The whole place left us all feeling rather miserable and disturbed. Luckily we had to concentrate on walking back to find the bus, running the gauntlet of more beggars, hawkers, cows, cow pats, hoses as people hosed down shrines and temples ( they might want to also take a look at the streets!!), and on a happy, positive note children walking, cycling and travelling by "school bus ric shaws" to school. Yes, out of all this chaos and depravity at 7a.m suddenly out popped these immaculate children who were all in a wonderful aray of school uniforms, all going to school. There was a glimmer of hope.

We then got back on the bus and travelled on to the university which our guide had attended. It was a beautiful place and taught 25,000 students on one campus. The fees are extremely low to attend the university, about £100 a year but the entrance is really competitive with about 100,000 applying for 10,000 places. Our guide showed us the temple in the university grounds which is a Hindu temple. There were a great many students praying. By now it was about 7.30a.m.

We then returned to the hotel for breakfast and to pack and rest. The children seem to have been very unrest less from the shouting I have heard coming from Mrs Bailey plus I have had Dr O Connor in to complain about Henry which I think was fairly trivial but I can see I'm handy to have a word. I do think that this trip may have been a bit much for Chris who is the youngest member of our group. He has been alarmed and worried much of the time and is finding the whole event quite a strain.

This afternoon we are going to a silk factory and a glass bead factory where I hope we don't get sworn at if we don't buy anything.

The. We are off on another overnight train. This time we are all together and our destination is Agra.

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