A Smell of Burning


This is the first day we’re sleeping in, the bus leaves at 10 am for some sight seeing where Sarnath, the place of Buddhas first sermon is among the sights. First is the temple they built there and it is decorated with a lot of neat murals depicting the life of Buddha and his path to enlightenment. Petra buys a neat book with explanations of Buddhas teachings which I also end up getting: “What would Buddha do? 101 answers to life’s hard questions”.

Onwards to the monument Dhamek Stupa, raised over the place of the first sermon. The guide is very particular about pointing out that it really wasn’t a sermon at all, rather a conversation with people. Buddha really disliked the preaching going on elsewhere so he chose to converse with people instead. The monument itself is more or less a solid cylinder of bricks some fifty meters high! I’ve never seen anything like it and it was awesome. The way they know it was real is because the British dug a shaft down the center of the thing. They found that it was indeed solid and only at the very bottom did they find a stone tablet, naming the place Dhamek and marking it as the place of the initial sermon.

We also visit a museum with a lot of old statues, including the Lion Capital of Asoka, the national symbol of India, which is polished to a shine even though it’s only sandstone, a technique said to be lost today. I’m a bit of a skeptic myself, I mean, how hard could it be? It’s obviously been done before =)

On the way back we also stop at a silk factory. Varanasi is famous for its silks and here we get to see how the cloths are made. The thread arrives here after being extracted from the cocoons, the actual silk worms are cultivated down south. Here it’s woven, either using “modern” method which involves an awesome punch card-programmed loom. These are the cheapest ones to make, the other method involves people keeping patterns in their head where one controls the threads coming into the loom and the other is doing the actual weaving. The latter method produces approximately 2 cm of cloth per day, obviously making it somewhat expensive.

We’re then taken upstairs where we’re show some of the finished products. The largest thing they make are bedspreads which go up to 44000 rupees. Both Piff and Puff end up getting some silk and Nina realizes that she’s forgotten her credit card. Ricard saves her by letting her use his, something that the staff thinks nothing of. Seems to be the standard around here, the women buying and the men paying.

Back at the hotel we grab some lunch before Elin, Sara, Nina, Börje and I head back downtown to see some sort of ceremony down by the Ganga river. We’re not sure what to expect but get a rickshaw as close we can get (the area closest to the river is closed off from traffic) and start walking. Soon we meet a guy called Raj, speaking excellent English who wants to show us the ceremony in exchange for us coming to his store. Since none of us really know what the ceremony is about we decide that this is a good idea, especially since his English is so good. He then goes on to say that he can show us the burning ghat as well and if we hurry we’ll be able to see the ghat first and then go straight to the ceremony.

This sounds great and we set off at a brisk pace through winding alleys filled with cows, goats, dogs and people. It’s really cool to see these alleys, especially in the evening with all the commotion still going on there. After a while we arrive at Harishchandra ghat and he explains in great detail how the ceremony is performed. As a person dies, the family has 24 hours to bring the body to Varanasi and the Ganga river and burn it, if they fail the soul will not enter Moksha and instead be reborn. This goes for all of India, which obviously is problematic if you live far away, so there are also hospices where the old are cared for awaiting their demise.

Upon death the body is stripped, placed under open sky and rubbed with honey, yogurt, sandal powder, ghee and honey. The body is then wrapped in a white cloth if it’s a man and a red cloth if it’s a woman, a stretcher is fashioned from two bamboo sticks and the body is carried down to the river all the while the family is chanting a mantra. Women are forbidden to participate in this part of the ceremony as they are deemed overly emotional and not without cause; several times it has happened that women have jumped into the fire when their husband has been burning. They also tent to cry a lot, which makes the soul feel guilty about entering Moksha and instead staying with them. For the same reason the family must leave the fire and not turn around while doing so. After the three hours or so it takes to burn the body, the final step is taking a clay pot and filling it with Ganga water. This is used to douse the fire and the ashes are put into a large heap which is then sifted through during a couple of morning hours when no burning takes place searching for valuables such as rings and gold teeth.

The job of burning is for the untouchables, the very lowest caste, they also get to keep whatever valuables they find when sifting the ashes. I was surprised to see the young man tending the fire was very well dressed, I’d though that all the untouchables were really poor. Not the case says Raj, caste has nothing to do with money really, he is for instance brahmin, the highest caste, and if he where rich, he wouldn’t be here talking to us.

There are a few people who aren’t burned: Sadhus and children under five aren’t since they are already pure, lepers as they are they think that it would spread disease, people killed in accidents (unnatural deaths) are taken to the electrical crematorium, people bitten by cobras also get special treatment, I forget why.

We’re not allowed to linger too long, since the ceremony is about to start. Another brisk walk along the Ganga where we marvel at the fact that the river was about 10 meters higher just a month or so ago when it was monsoon season. It can be seen by the plentiful mud drying on the shore. We get a really good spot for the ceremony which really isn’t all that interesting but very good at setting the mood. It’s a lot of drumming and fire being passed around to honor the river.

It’s time to go visit Raj’s shop, and we all agree that he’s done a splendid job. Turns out that they have some very nice shawls and other doodahs so we end up shopping for a rather handsome amount. One of the guys working there are really happy about my cricket t-shirt since it’s his team, but he’s disappointed that I don’t really know anything about them.

On the way back to getting a rickshaw I ask Raj what movies he’d recommend seeing. He says that he doesn’t go to the movies because people are always shouting, cheering and clapping even making it hard to follow the movie. Since this is exactly what I’d been looking for I’m excited and he says that we’ll be able to catch a movie at the shopping mall right next to our hotel.

Back at the hotel the WiFi still isn’t okay, the guy tells me the technician is away buying antivirus to fix the connection. Good luck with that….

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