Nirvana on the Ghats of Varanasi

Far away from home, coming to terms with grief in one of the oldest living cities in the world.

Written by Glyn Peterson | Updated: November 27, 2016 11:27 am
varanasi, ganga, varanasi attractions, places to see in varanasi, varanasi cremation, hindu cremation ritual, benaras, benaras ghat cremation, india news, varanasi travelogue, sunday eye, eye 2016,  The city’s ghats at sunset. (Source: Express Archives)

I was hesitant to take my mother to Varanasi. After seven months of living and studying in Delhi, I knew I was prepared for the crowds, for the sensory overload, for the skewed ratio of men to women on the streets. But my mother had never been to India. She wasn’t familiar with how it feels to walk through a busy lane in a city where millions of people are caught in a constant battle for space to exist. I was hesitant, to say the least, but I wanted to see India’s holy city, and she was eager to take me there.

On our first evening in Varanasi, my mother and I walked down to the Ganges so we could explore the city’s ghats at sunset. A constant stream of street vendors approached us, holding postcards and little trinkets up to our faces — “Rs 200, ma’am. Wait! For you, a special deal. Now, Rs 100, ma’am.” My mother was kind to street vendors — she looked them in the eye when they spoke to her, and thanked them for their offers before declining. Men and women would trail us down long city blocks, lowering the price of their merchandise with every step. Every time someone finally veered away from us, I reminded my mother of the frustratingly unrelenting variety of optimism among Indian street vendors, who constantly believed that “no” meant maybe and yes meant “I’ll take three.”

It saddened me to see how difficult it was for my mother to ignore all of the people that approached us with little colourful wooden figurines of Hindu gods and goddesses or empty containers to be filled with Ganges water. I saw, for the first time, how jaded I had become in Delhi — ignoring the presence of other human beings had become an instinct and an impulse.

The streets became more and more congested as my mother and I approached the Ganges. When the density of the crowd began to overwhelm me, I took a deep breath and began to pretend I was swimming in an ocean. Currents, and not crowds, began propelling me forward and pulling my body in unexpected directions. I negotiated around a painted cow, stubbornly and calmly standing in the middle of the street as I would have swam around a rock or a boat. A moment later, I held my breath and sped up while walking past a urinal full of men staring at me and smiling slightly while relieving themselves, just as I would while diving under a wave. “Just keep swimming” had become one of the many mantras I relied upon in Delhi. Never had Finding Nemo been more inspirational.

At the bank of the Ganges, my mother and I eagerly stepped into a small wooden canoe, ready to view the crowded streets from afar. The boat’s owner sat facing us, paddling hard with his head down. He stopped in front of a smoky cement slab that extended into the river — a crematorium ghat. The fires were big, bright, and hot. Our guide told us that it takes three hours for a body to turn to ash. Men sat around the fires, waiting.

A hospice towered above the scene. Our guide told us it was active, but it had the appearance of a building that had been abandoned midway through construction years ago. It was three storeys tall and was made of grey, unpainted concrete. Each storey had three massive uncovered windows. I fell asleep that night with my hair in a braid, unable to wash the smell of smoke out of it. As I shut my eyes, I tried to imagine what it would feel like to smell the smoke created by burning bodies all day and all night while on your deathbed.

Our guide pointed to a pile of steaming ash next to the river, explaining that families throw some of a body’s ashes into the Ganges and the rest went into that pile. Every morning, scavengers would sift through the ash, hoping the sunlight would catch the glimmer of a gold ring or tooth. Scavengers found an ounce of gold a day by sifting through ash, I learned. My mother kept asking questions about the process. “If it is just going to be taken this way, then why would the family not take off the gold before the cremation?”

Before paddling away, we watched a group of men carry a corpse down to the Ganges and dip it into the water before burning it. The bright fabric draped over the body clung to the deceased’s face and limbs once wet.

The next morning, my mother and I returned to the ghat on foot. The smoke burned my eyes and I was relieved that it smelled more like charred wood than burning flesh. My mother and I walked by a temple on the edge of the ghat, dedicated to Lord Shiva. Two middle-aged women were sitting in it, grieving. Their loud sobs filled the temple as they ran their fingers over a corpse covered in a piece of bright red cloth with marigolds embroidered on it with gold thread.

I looked over to my mom and saw that she was sobbing too. I knew her tears were for my grandmother before she said a word. It made sense that seeing people saying goodbye to a loved one would remind her of her own recent loss. She cried and I held her hand as we navigated the lanes leading back to our hotel. “Of all my sisters, I am the only one whose hands were small enough for my mother’s rings,” she told me. While I understood and even anticipated her tears, this comment confused me.

That night as we were getting ready for dinner, my mother spoke to me for the first time about what it was like for her to stand in the hospital room where my grandmother had died. She described the way my grandmother’s fingers had became swollen after she had passed away — so swollen that my mother had a difficult time removing her gold rings.

The next morning, my mother and I went for one last walk before flying back to Delhi and parting ways. My mother seemed so grounded, so at home as we weaved through the narrow lanes along the Ganges. She drifted around an upturned cycle rickshaw in the middle of the path and floated past a cluster of women laying clean, wet saris and kurtas on the warm concrete steps next to the river. The grief she carried with her across an ocean and two continents tied her to streets so different than any she had ever walked down — to the hectic intersections, to the constant stream of people, to the gold-speckled piles of ash bordering the Ganges.

 

Glyn Peterson is a student at the University of Edinburgh. She studied in India and interned with The Indian Express last year.