Haggling and laughter surround the dead at Harishchandra Ghat in Varanasi. Along with buffalo, goats, and dogs. I’ve been searching for a metaphor which describes India, and in Varanasi I believe I’ve found one.
Life goes on. Death is accepted as another journey that we are all guaranteed to take.
For those that price the wood and handle the bodies, death is a chance to earn and to live. For the wandering goats and buffalo’s, it’s a chance to eat the flowers that cover the body. For the dogs it’s a chance to bask in the warmth of the fire and warm sand.
No tears, no sadness, no pious religious sermons, and no women (at least that I could see).
It’s chaotic, dirty, filled with people, and ubiquitous cows. Ceremony and spirituality are one as bodies are bathed by hand in the sacred river, before being placed on sandalwood pyres.
Crowds gather to watch the half dozen bodies burn. Tourists gape and point, locals laconically chew paan, spitting the blood red juice at their feet. Mourning shaven headed males wash themselves in the river, whilst being tugged and prodded by the ‘fire master’ who will undoubtedly demand an extra fee for his ‘guidance’.
For me Varanasi is India at her most incongruous. Life overcoming death. Material spiritualism. Where no one knows what to do, and one eyed men demand hefty fees.
Cows eat everything, with the blue sky and golden sun as their backdrop. Delineated neatly by the emerald green Ganges. The rivers source is the home of the Gods. Every evening the Ganges is gently put too bed by the prayers of millions.
In India, holiness and life live side by side. But this holy venerated river is polluted with the filth of millions. To me it makes little sense, to an Indian its perfectly simple. I watch as a man bathes, swooshing and spitting the ‘holy’ water in his mouth. Barely 20 meters to the left the dearly departed burn, to the right the buffalo’s bathe.
This is India. She smiles enigmatically, all the while her minions whisper to you: “It’s crazy, but it works”. It’s the land of the lowest common denominator, and ‘chalte hai’. But before you get to smug, an old man sidles up to you and gasps hoarsely “…and we’re happier than you!” Before breaking into a phlegm filled cackle and hobbling off on his improbably thin bony bandy legs.
A crucible of life, a primordial soup of existence. Every human form exists here. From dealers in death to Bodhisattva’s. The great Mother India invites all her children to suckle her bosom. She loves all unconditionally, and watches with poise and equanimity as one son depraves and defiles, revels in the basest of existence. Whilst the other loves and lifts the human spirit to the lofty world of the Gods. Freely giving peace, love, wisdom and happiness to all so that you may escape the bonds of this earth and reach nirvana, never to return.
This is India. Life and death are but sides of a coin. She is primal, she is the source…India is the beginning, and the end.