I am writing this from the rooftop of our guesthouse in India's holiest city, Varanasi, also known as the city of death. It seems fitting to end the Indian chapter of our journey in this sacred and fascinating place.
Hindus come to die here and many come for pilgrimage. In death, bodies are brought here so they can be purified and cremated at the holy Ganges and their soul given the best chance for liberation and redemption for entry into its next life. Hindus believe in rebirths. How you have lived in this life determines whether you are reborn into a higher or lower caste or perhaps, if you've been particularly bad, as an animal.
Everything is laid out bare to see and it is not a city for the faint hearted. Bodies wrapped in red or white (depending on whether it's a woman or a man) are walked through the city by male family members and laid down by the side of the water. Only men attend the cremations in Hinduism. The women are thought to be more likely to cry and the act of crying stops the soul from leaving its body.
At the rivers edge, the body is immersed into the holy waters and family members will each take turns to splash water over the body. The sons or husbands at this point have their heads shaved of hair and change into pure white robes. They will be the ones who light the flames and start the cremation process of their loved ones. A torch will be lit from the holy Shiva temple and taken to where the body lay. The man then walks around the body five times to symbolise the five elements of life, wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Each body takes around three hours to become ash. The ashes are then collected in small silver boxes and the family members take boats out and scatter the ashes of their loved ones into the Ganges.
How rich or poor you are and what caste you are from determines what type of ceremony you have. Richer families can afford better silks, better wood, better oils and incense. Members from higher caste will be burnt on raised platforms to mark their status in life.
And so, just like this, hundreds of bodies are seen into their next life whilst tourists and onlookers gawk, trying to get their heads around these sacred rituals.
Yesterday, as we watched four or five bodies burning by the water, a young man walked over to us. He asks the obligatory questions about our time in India and talk quickly turns to cricket. After some Kohli this and fast pitch that, it's onto Bollywood and Indian music. It's a surreal moment. I'm trying to focus, take in what I'm seeing and be respectful and our Indian friend is nattering away as if we are sitting watching TV together over a cup of chai.
In India, I feel that death is addressed, understood and accepted more than it seems to be at home. Families save for years and take out loans which they cannot afford to ensure loved ones get a proper burial. People talk about it openly and children aren't sheltered from it. Perhaps it is the concept of rebirths that makes people here more accepting of death or perhaps I am just making assumptions because of the openness and public nature of Hindu end of life rituals.
The juxtaposition of life and death in this holy city is what I love about it the most. Nowhere in India can you experience India's soul and spirit so strongly as you can here. As smoke rises from the Burning Ghat, boys shout and play cricket in the steps nearby, a man brushes his teeth in the holy water and buffalo take a swim to cool down from the day's heat. Varanasi, for all its death, is a city more full of life than any I've experienced.
Varanasi encompasses all I love about India. People live in often tough and harsh circumstances here and yet India is brimming and bursting with life. For me, the people, colours, spices, music, animals, spirituality and soul, make India irresistible. So, as the sun sets on our final night in this magical country, it is namaste, thank you and see you again soon from us.
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