Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Burning Ghats of Varanasi

First a glow, then the ash falls. To my surprise, the product of these fuming pyres stings my eyes. Drifting past this medieval scene in our leaky wooden vessel, I feel as if I transcended back through time at least a few centuries. I swear I hear voices whisper through the black night, the final dreams of passing spirits or perhaps last requests. In this feeble light it seems the shores themselves were hewn of rib and joint. Each ghat is crowned with roaring flames. Corpses wrapped in gold linen are carried down the stone steps for their Gangal dip then brought to the burn – back to the earth. The clang of bells dances upon the river; carrying with it weeping and sorrow. Costumed disciples twirl candles upon a stone tower with silent rhythm for those they know not. Another is lit. A dark, human profile turns to ash as the sandalwood smolders to infinity. If Hades were on earth, this river would truly be the fabled Styx.

Our boatman slowly paddles on. The air is so thick with spirits we nearly choke. I turn my head back to the night just to clean the slate before taking one last look at this haunting scene. The feeling is more than I expected of these public cremations. Blank. Solemn. Smoke. I feel quite voyeuristic, almost guilty for witnessing this scene. But the spectacle is so encompassing and the feelings so physically powerful – you are not merely watching, you are truly part of it all.

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