Wednesday, July 15, 2009
First let me say: we didn't plan to go on this tour.
We got up early to see Ganga-ji, the goddess, at sunrise.
"You want boat ride?" several men asked us at 5 am. As a group of five Americans, we were easily targeted.
Some wanted to go, so soon all of us were climbing aboard the boat. Among the sights was a sign for Mother Theresa, spelled "Rytasha."
It was a beautiful and interesting ride, but after two hours, the man paddling our boat said, "You like to go ashore? Just ten or fifteen minutes."
Actually, he was 78 years old and had picked up a younger man a half hour earlier to share the rowing.
"Do you need a break?" we asked. "Okay, we'll go ashore briefly."
But as we climbed off the boat, we were taken into the hands of a tour guide who led us up into the main crematorium of Varanasi.
Not quite the peaceful dawn I had had in mind.
No photos allowed, of course. We were shown pyres still burning from the night before, supplies of sandal wood, and the three buildings where people live who are waiting to die. The people in charge of this place care for them--and doing all of this death-related work makes them one of the lowest castes.
People come because if they die here and are put in the Ganga, they go straight to Nirvana.
The guide explained that five different kinds of incense are put on each body. At the end of the funeral fire, the family pours water on the fire from a clay pot, breaks it, and experiences closure.
"You go heaven, I go home," is the belief, the guide said.
We were led to a priest in a small room overlooking the Ganga. He prays by the eternal fire, lit 3500 years ago, from which all the individual pyres are lit.
"It's good karma to give here," the guide informed us.
We each kneeled before him in order to get a blessing, which turned out to be a kind of fortune telling.
"Try to change your life. You are lucky," the priest told me, holding my head and making an orange mark between my eyebrows.
He extended his hand, and when I shelled out 100 rupees, his face told me it was not enough. Okay, 500 rupees.
The bones and ashes are wrapped in a shiney cloth and placed in the Ganga with a rock to make them sink.
We had to make a couple of other donations, and then our guide returned us to the boat.
His name is Saylu Surendar, and he does this work on a volunteer basis for three hours before his work day and also after work.
"It's good karma," he explained.
And it was clear we needed to tip him--but our funds for paying the man who rowed our boat were fast dwindling.
Note: a sales boat accosted us soon after we left the crematorium, offering necklaces and various other souvenirs. We bought a small leaf bowl of flowers and a wick in a bit of wax to give to Ganga-Ma, the mother goddess.
But then we couldn't light the wick in the early morning breeze. Someone finally lit it for us, and we set it to sail on the water.