I woke up 2.5 hours ago to watch the sunrise and went back to bed. I’m back, and wide awake! Where are we? In Myanmar about to enter the Aeyerwaddy River (which I incorrectly typed as Yangoon River in the previous entry). But that’s not important right now.
We’re in Varanasi, the holiest city in India, waking up at 4am to go to the shores of the holy river Ganges to watch the early morning religious rituals from a boat. Hindus see the Ganges as a godess, and even though it is a visibly polluted, this doesn’t stop the faithful from bathing and drinking the water, often times just feet away from…
Well, the bus drops us off about a ten-minute walk from the shore, and now I finally hear the sounds of India as we have been taught to hear. A funeral procession – no, a funeral celebration - is going on next to us, and the we pass the dozens of beggars and cows and faithfuls and holy men in our short walk to the shore.
(Allow me to interrupt this for a second – we’re in the river and our first sight of Burma is of completely rural countryside, with straw huts and villages and thousands of small fishing boats all over the place. I swear some of these boats will capsize on our ship’s wake. For the first time on this trip, I feel like we’re the first westerners to see some of this stuff, and in many ways, we probably are).
(This is awesome. I’m going outside for a while).
(Back to India).
We pile on the boats and the sight is something straight out of Star Wars, with buildings and people and colors that could be found in another galaxy. The fires on the funeral pyres light up the crematorium. People have gotten into the water, young and old, mostly clothed, though it was interesting to see that in such a conservative society, that we see very old women naked as they change into dry sarees. As the sun came up over the eastern shore of the river, we had the first up close view of the dead bodies.
(I can see four golden pagodas from where I’m sitting).
This was surreal. There are in fact floating bodies in the Ganges. We saw rotten ones. We saw fresh ones being dumped. Most of the time, people are supposed to be burned in the pyres before their ashes get dumped in the river, but some people, like holy men, those who died of snake bite, and those who can’t afford the cremation simply get dumped in the river. And since there are many faithful who also like to float while quietly meditating, the game “Is he dead or alive?” becomes a really fun game on the boat.
We exited the boat into the crematorium, where we did, in fact, see the bodies get taken into the river for blessing before getting taken to the funeral pyre to be burned. We saw the bodies get burned – one of which only the head remained. They would eventually move the head into the fire for full cremation.
This is as far away and alien as from our society as imaginable (or unimaginable). Yet there was this certain calmness and normalcy about it all. There was no culture shock. There should have been. This all made sense while we were there. This is what they do. They’re not hurting anyone (except perhaps the unhealthy practice of making use of the polluted river). Death is seen as a normal, mundane process in Varanasi; I asked our tour guide if there was mourning of the dead and he said there was momentary sadness in Hinduism, but for the most part, they believe the person has been reincarnated, so murning doesn’t exist as we understand it in the west.
I want to know more about this. I want to spend a month in India. Not to find some truth, but just to learn more as to what their thinking. This is simply surreal, yet so familiar and normal.
Ok, I have to stop now. We keep passing more pagodas and I need to see what is going on outside. It’s as if there are no western influences or modernities where we have been going. This is amazing.
Back in a few.