Myles Harrington

The Burning Bodies of Varanasi

In India on June 13, 2010 at 10:47 am

While ze German chilled out on the rooftop of a jazz cafe smoking blunts and the Brits saw all the temples of the city, I, for my first two days in Varanasi, was in bed. Of the first 48 hours in India’s holiest city, I was asleep for 40 of them, interspersed with multiple trips to the hole in the floor for a quick hover and an indian style wipe. If you hadn’t yet guessed it, I had a bad case of diarrhea.

When I finally did get out of bed to see the sights of the city I was hit by the stench of cow shit. There are probably more cows here per square mile than on the average South American cattle ranch. They’re everywhere, even more than in Delhi! I’ve even seen them lounging in someones front room. Yesterday I was stood behind a man while we waited to walk past a cow as it pissed and he just proceeded to walk straight through it after, barefoot.

The view from the guesthouse rooftop restaurant

I went off to meet the Brits at their guesthouse on Friday morning and we took a small stroll through the old city passed the burning ghat, Varanasi’s most famous attraction/holy spot. A place where dead Hindus are brought to be cremated alongside the river Ganges in a ceremony. It’s not a sight for the squeamish, you do see dead people – lots of them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dead body before I’d come here and in three days I think I’ve probably seen about ten close up, one of them just floating in the river while people swam by. The funeral processions run past you in the cramped alleyways with the bodies on stretchers like the medics at a football match. Although the ritual is full on, I think it’s a much nicer way to be cremated, with your family gathered around you on the bank of a beautiful river than hidden in the back of a cold and rundown cemetery on a rainy day in Blighty. Apparently the fires have been going for 3500 years and it goes on for 24 hours a day.

Out of respect you're not allowed to take pics of the burning bodies otherwise you get beaten badly or imprisoned. I sneaked this shot from the safety of the river

After the spectacle of the burning ghat it was time to treat myself to the second shave of the trip to signal the start of the World Cup, the Britons leaving and seeing off the illness.

No silly 'tache this time

We then took a bike rickshaw over to Sarnath, 12km out of town, to see the holy Buddhist town where Buddha delivered his first sermon. There were a few temples there, so it was nice for an afternoon stroll. I was still feeling slightly fragile so it was back to the my abode for a nap, dinner and the start of the footie tournament.

I know it's childish

Varanasi itself actually reminds me slightly of Venice. I think perhaps because it’s a maze of small lanes where it’s extremely easy to get lost, it’s full of poo and lots of shops selling tourist tat.

To get into this golden temple I just had to sign a piece of paper to say I was Hindu. Am I now a christened Hindu?

On Saturday I took advantage of the guesthouse’s offer for a free boat trip along the Ganges at 5am for sunrise. It was a beautiful half an hour, besides the floating corpse, but I suppose that adds to the charm of the place. I went for a full English at a German bakery after and bumped into Matias, a German fellow I’d stayed in a dorm in Darjeeling with. We took a bike rickshaw and had a trip around town to visit the temples I hadn’t yet seen. Once again, I started to feel queasy. I think it’s just far too hot here.

The rising of the burning sun


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