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Andrew Dispatch

Burial at Sea: Being Thrown to the Fishes in Teeming Varanasi
June 14, 2000

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Turbaned Trekker Andrew stands beside the Ganges
What would you like to be done with your body after you die? Maybe you'll donate it to science, or be cremated and have the ashes spread over your favorite place, or be buried in the family plot along with other members of your clan. People in different parts of the world perceive death and dying in different ways. To a good Hindu, there is only one place to die -- Varanasi.

Varanasi (also known as Benares) is sometimes referred to as "the Athens of India." It's the hot spot from which to step out of this life for Hindus. That's because, according to Hindu belief, if you die here you'll be released from the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. So, in this city, one sees a lot of old people wandering up and down the banks of the Ganges, the river that runs through Varanasi, more or less waiting to shuffle off of this mortal coil.

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for larger view
This elderly couple made a long journey to the Ganges to wash away their sins and wait to die
We arrived in Varanasi after a long train ride, wishing we were dead in the 47C/116F heat. Stepping off the train, we were soon surrounded by the usual motley crew of rickshaw wallahs, who offered to take us to the Ganges at a cheap price. We piled aboard their rickety bicycles and a bumpy thirty minutes and ten degrees later, we were within viewing and smelling distance of the magnificent Ganges.

I call it magnificent out of reverence for the position that it holds in Hindu philosophy. In fact, when I see the Ganges -- or, more accurately, when I smell the Ganges-I think mostly of the fact that the fecal count is 250,000 times higher than the World Health Organization says is healthy, and that human bodies are regularly dumped into the river. I'll explain why in a minute.

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Devotees take the plunge in the holy river
The Ganges has a unique odor that perhaps can be described as pungent. But it doesn't seem to bother the faithful who swim in, drink from, and frolic in this mighty river. In fact, they say that a bath in this water washes away all sins. I stayed dry, figuring that whatever sins I had committed during my time on this planet were not worth the punishment of going into that water.


reverence - esteem, respect
pungent - sharp, strong
ghats - steps
incinerators - furnaces
shrouded - covered, wrapped

Walking down the ghats of the Ganges at dawn, just before five in the morning, one is hassled by the hundreds of touts who make their living off of the tourists, Indian and foreign, who come to the city. If you want to take a boat ride (which I recommend), there will be no problem in finding someone willing to take you. In fact, you can have your face shaved, your fortune told, your clothes washed, a good meal, a hotel, a rickshaw ride, or even a head massage anywhere along the riverside. You need not search, since someone providing just what you need (or don't need) will beat a path to you and not take no for an answer.

We accepted the offer of one man with a questionably seaworthy vessel to row this fascinating river. It was just after dawn. The incinerators were already going full blast, and devotees were already making the plunge. We shoved off from one bank and headed upriver, watching the spectrum of colors and the myriad of people along the bank.

"The railway followed the Ganges for a time...travellers could see the varied landscape; mountains clothed in verdure, fields of barley, maize and wheat, streams and pools teeming with greenish alligators, well-kept villages, and forests still green. A few elephants and some zebus, with their great humps, came down to bathe in the waters of the sacred river, and parties of Indians, men and women, piously performed their holy ablutions in spite of the advanced season and chilly temperature. These devotees...are fervent followers of the Brahminical religion, with its three godheads, Vishnu, the sun god, Shiva, the divine impersonation of the natural forces, and Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu...(near) the sacred waters of the Ganges, (with) the gulls that flitted about on its surface, the turtles teeming on its shores, and the faithful lying all along its banks!"
-Jules Verne, "Around the World in Eighty Days," 1873

The captain of our rowboat was a young fellow with a reasonable knowledge of the Ganges. He told us about the origin of the name Varanasi-it means "the city between two rivers," the Varuna and the Assi. It has been a place of learning and civilization for more than 2,000 years. He rowed us to the burning ghats, where dearly departed Hindus are cremated. How do they get the bodies there? First, someone dies. Next, if that someone is a Hindu, and has led a good full life, s/he may be burned there. The body is wrapped up and carried on a bamboo stretcher to the Ganges, where it is dipped in the water. This is all done by outcasts known as doms. Next, the corpse is taken up to the burning place, where firewood is carefully measured out and, if there is enough wood, the body is in time reduced to ashes. Anyone is welcome to watch, and it's seen as a kind of meditation to see the bodies burn. Photography, however, is strictly forbidden.

The fires that coarse through these ancient ghats never go out -- they are kept lit constantly. When the river runs high, the flames are moved higher. Some say the flames are more than 5,000 years old. Since the fire is perceived as pure, only certain bodies will be burned here. For example, the deceased must have lived and died a natural death. That is so that the person will have fulfilled her/his earthly karmatic duties. Therefore, no children are burned, since they have not lived long enough to fulfill those responsibilities. Children, along with people diseased with leprosy, smallpox, and some other sicknesses, are instead shrouded and weighted down with stones, and thrown into the river. Then, in nature's way of recycling, the bodies become fodder (food) for the giant turtles and flesh-eating dolphins who swim up from the Bay of Bengal to feast on the folk in the water. (Note to anyone going to Varanasi: don't eat the seafood.)

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Washing up in the early morning sun
Even though it is a place of death, Varanasi is also a place of intense life and joy. There are always children playing cricket along the ghats, people of all shapes and sizes milling about, mischievous monkeys stealing fruit from vendors, and tourists from all over India and the world soaking in the atmosphere. Our old friend Mark Twain, who visited the city back in the 1800s, said that the city "…is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together." I agree. The twisting, crowded alleyways are fascinating to wander through. Sure, they are littered with cows and cow droppings, riddled with rabid rodents, bursting with blind beggars, and swarming with flies, but they are too powerful to resist the temptation to get lost in. The labyrinth of alleys twist and turn up and down until you are positively dizzy with the stench and heat of the place. Afterward, if you find your way out, you can sip on a banana lassi and watch the sun set over the majestic Ganges. If not, you are doomed to stroll forever in the maze of crowded passageways.

"There is Gunga -- and Gunga alone -- who washes away sin."
-Rudyard Kipling, "Kim," 1901

Rudyard Kipling, a well-known English writer from the time of the British Imperialist period in India's long history, has referred to Varanasi many times in his tales. Some come from "Kim," his story about a young orphan boy who has various adventures throughout India. Kim is travelling with an old holy man on a crowded train to Varanasi (then called Benares), and overhears this conversation:

"What rivers have ye by Benares?" said the lama of a sudden to the carriage at large.
"We have Gunga," (Ganges) returned the banker.
"What others?"
"What others than the Gunga?"
"Nay, but in my mind was the thought of a certain river of healing."
"That is Gunga. Who bathes in her is made clean and goes to the Gods. Thrice I have made the pilgrimage to Gunga." He looked round proudly.
"There was need," said the young sepoy drily, and the travellers' laugh turned against the banker.

Recommended Reading:

"Kim," by Rudyard Kipling
"Around the World in Eighty Days," by Jules Verne

There is so much to tell about Varanasi. It is a place that represents all aspects of human existence-birth, death, and all between, manifested in a never-ending churning sea of sights, smells, and sensations. Even if you are not a Hindu, Varanasi is well worth a visit. Just don't drink the water.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Trading With The Enemy? How One Company Dominated India
Andrew - Follow the Yellow Brick Road (to meet an eight year old monk?)!
Monica - Serving the Poorest of the Poor: Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Jasmine - Village of Angels

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