Thursday, 8 April 2010


Wednesday 7 April: India's holiest city, on the east bank of India's holiest river, where Hindus come to die. The faithful believe that if they expire here and their ashes are scattered on the sacred Ganges they go directly to Nirvana.
I'm staying in the popular Shanti Guesthouse with views across the river to the sandy western flood plain and beyond. Early evening I join other guests for a sunset Ganges cruise on board a bow-oared rowing skiff (48th mode of transport).
Passing the burning ghats stacked high with logs and glowing hot from the flames from funeral pyres we learn that most Hindu families choose an open air, wood-fired cremation rather than the cheaper electric crematorium. Wood costs 300 Rupees per kilo so most funerals are 3,000 Rupees (about
£44), quite a lot of money. An electric cremation is 500 Rupees but, in an effort to clean up the Ganges, the government insist that the ashes interred rather than giving them back to the family to scatter. The destitute are electrically cremated for free. In Hinduism the pure of spirit: still born children, pregnant women and lepers needn't be burnt and instead their weighted bodies are cast into Ganges intact.
Next we moor on the sandy east bank to watch the sunset. After only a few yards of walking human remains appear - first a scull and then the badly decomposed remains of, we presume, a young woman with a fine set of teeth. With stronger stomachs than I, the locals drink, wash and swim in the Ganges.
We return to Varanasi and see more funeral pyres through the darkness. The boatman estimates 200 per day, on a good day, as he slurps a handfuls of water from the slowly moving river, he's swallowed a mosquito.
Photos of Varanasi, not for the faint hearted.

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