Sunday, June 21, 2015

India travelogue 5 - What's life?

I was cautious - first time in a new place where you don't know about the local practices you ought to be careful; I had read stories of foreigners getting in trouble when they were simply taking snaps. I observed and walked; felt a little eerie as I went further to the left because people were very few.

I noticed two fires burning near the Ganga river bank - it looked like a funeral but it didn't seem clear because I didn't see any family around. There were only a group of young guys chatting, moving things around, walking up and down the Ghat etc. 

A little further up the steps of this Ghat, there were huge piles of wooden logs cut in fixed lengths. There were a couple of guys carrying few of these pieces from the stockpile to near the fires where they arranged them neatly. 

Ceremony at the Ghat

While this was happening there were a couple of other scenes that caught my attention. I heard huge drumbeats coming from somewhere beyond the Ghat. The sounds became louder with every minute and I saw three stretchers being carried by people to the river bank. These were wooden stretchers which were wrapped in the centre in ornate colourful cloth. Were those bodies? Or was this some other ceremony?

Another scene unfolding near me was that of a small boy, hardly 8 years old, trying to steer two buffaloes up the Ghat (each Ghat has a series of steps leading to the river bank). He tugged with all his might but the buffaloes wanted to go in the other direction; it was quite a sight - a little boy trying to control something that was so huge and he was trying it bravely without fear that in case the buffaloes charged at him he was a goner. I would have feared holding the rope. The boy wasn't successful; he got help from another man who seemed a veteran in handling them - he tugged and the buffaloes reluctantly changed direction climbing the Ghat.

My open questions were soon clarified. The stretcher was placed on the ground; two men removed the ornate cloth to reveal some mass that was wrapped in a white sheet. Both of them held the mass on extreme ends, lifted it from the wooden stretcher and placed it on the rectangular structure that was created with the log pieces. When they lifted the mass I was sure it was a body; one guy held the head while the other held the legs. Everything was covered but you could make out the shape. This was left in place for a few minutes; would someone from the family light it? All of a sudden another youngster casually lit a log and slipped it under the body. He did the same from the other side as well and soon the flames rose; consuming wood and the body as fuel. Two more bodies were still on the stretcher and two more were burning on the side.

Dust in the end

The words of the manager rung in my mind, "Time doesn't matter here." 
I watched the flames lost in thought. On the steps I saw an Indian guide explaining something to a foreigner. I saw a couple of foreigners sitting near a tea stall smoking beedi; that was quite a sight - soaking in Indian culture was great but I didn't expect to see Europeans smoking a beedi! 

A couple of foreign ladies stopped near me because their guide stopped abruptly. He started explaining to them, "It is considered very holy to die here. People stay in hostels hoping to die here. Hostels are near by. People stay to die in the hostels.” 
Was he promoting the hostels? Fortunately he didn't dwell on that for long. "When someone dies elsewhere it is holy to have their funeral here. Because the person can reach moksha or nirvana or enlightenment. But the body has to be brought within 24 hours or else it has to be done in their own place."
At this Ghat there was also an electric furnace inside a building for burning bodies - electric furnaces were now a common way of cremation. The exterior of the building had a strange black charred look; apt I guess considering what happens inside.

The guide explained the practice of Sati - wife jumping into the fire where the husband's body was cremated. He said it was no longer practiced. It seemed like he memorised the lines or perhaps he had said it so often that his narration sounded like a robot.

Witnessing funerals and deaths makes you ponder over life; even changes your perspective. Here I was seeing 5 lifeless bodies; no matter what they had achieved in this world - be it fame or money or ego victories over others; no matter what, in the end everything is dust. 

Everything seems so petty when you think of the dust - ambition, designations, placements, career growth, increments, number of people reporting to you, rank in college, prettiness, beauty, health, wealth, friends, relatives, anger, love, hatred, lust, desire, addiction, Facebook likes, retweets, comments, girlfriends, boyfriends, bank balance, heat, cold, hard work; everything fades.


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