Varanasi is one of India’s holiest cities. And it was here we dared to take our first rickshaw ride, of the un-automotive type. That is, a human being on a bike lugged Kevin and I down streets jammed packed with small, scrappy stores selling a variety of clothes, and silks, and plastic odds and ends.
We ended up sitting on the ghats, watching boats, some filled with wood, float down the river. Earlier in our wanderings down the shore of the Ganges, we came across an area where a water buffalo stood letting the birds pick insects off his head. As we stood there admiring, a European tourist stopped, took out his camera, snapped a few pictures of the birds and water buffalo, and smiled at us.
We smiled back, and an Indian man wearing a white doti interjected.
“No camera sir,” he said, “This is a holy place. Yesterday a Japanese man took pictures and the police came. No pictures.”
The European man complied and dropped his camera back down around his neck. Kevin and I listened to this exchange and moved on. Given the camera in my bag, I felt lucky to overhear this bit of information, but confused as to why suddenly the river area was too holy for pictures.
Up ahead on the shore a crowd of men sat upon the edge of the ghats watching large mounds of wood being burned. As we watched the thick clouds of black smoke descend off the fires, trying to get a sense for the ritual going on, we were approached by a small man in a burgundy colored robe, walking with a slight stoop as he headed our way. In jilted English he introduced himself, “I am a holy man here. This is a holy place.”
My eyes suddenly took in the scene anew. On top of the ten or so woodpiles that weren’t yet engulfed in flames were large, white plastic bags, shaped as if they were wrapped around a human body. Kevin later informed me it was white cloth, not plastic bags as I’d assumed. Regardless, it was the human remains that suddenly changed everything about where we were and what we were doing. In the fire closest to us a curved log on top turned out to be somebody’s spine, connected to somebody’s skull. “No pictures,” suddenly made complete sense. It would be considered the most respectful thing to do anywhere.
“We dip the body in the Ganges’ water, and then we cremate it. Sometimes after the fire is out we find some bone left, like a hip, and we throw it into the river,” The holy man explained, “First bath in the Ganga, last bath in the Ganga.”
I stared at the racks of bodies, covered in white cloth, painted and covered with marigolds, waiting their turn.
“We burn hundreds of bodies a day here. Hindus believe that dying in the Ganges destroys all karma, and ends the cycle of death and rebirth.” The holy man motioned to the men seated on the ghats watching the ceremonies, “Male family members of the deceased. Woman used to be allowed to watch too,” the holy man said, “But when their husband’s bodies would be lit on fire, they would jump in too.”
I knew that traditionally speaking marriage brings everything to an Indian woman, any power and prestige she might have. If her husband dies she is often doomed. She can be rejected by society and forced to life a life of poverty and probable prostitution. It wasn’t hard to imagine that they’d have a problem here with women throwing themselves on the fire.
Kevin whispered to me, “I heard that there were times when the women were thrown on the fire by the husband’s family.” The holy man didn’t mention any of this though, as he lead us up the ghats, through the group of men, and towards something he called “Shiva’s fire.”
A man approached Kevin and I as we followed the holy man through the crowd, “Bad man! Don’t give him any money! He’s bad man!”
I paused, for a second, my faith in the holy man flickering, but I was tired of being told that whatever I was doing wasn’t the best option. Hadn’t I, just that morning, been dragged around to five hotels by our taxi driver, who insisted the place we had booked at was dirty? Hadn’t we ended up back at the original place, which was just fine? Wasn’t everyone always telling us to watch out for someone else?
So I ignored the man. I wondered if Kevin heard the comment as we followed the holy man up to another pile of burning logs churning smoke out onto into the sky.
“Shiva’s fire.” The holy man said. “We always keep it burning. I am a holy man. I work at the hospice. We care for people before they die.”
I felt relieved; he was obviously committed to caring for others.
I had assumed our little tour would lead to a request for money at some point, so I wasn’t surprised when we ended it in a small dirt lot filled with piles of wood.
“We use banyan root and mango root. That’s why there is no smell. But it’s very expensive. Half a kilo is one hundred fifty rupees. One kilo is a three hundred. Can you donate to help?”
Kevin didn’t have any money on him. He’d spent it on the cab. I reached into my pocket, “I only have a hundred rupees. Here. Thanks for the tour.”
The holy man protested, and after arguing for a while he took they money.
After a few prayers Kevin and I headed down to the ghats to sit, ignoring the most common question in Varanasi: “Boat? Boat? Sir? Mam? Boat? Boat?”
A group of three boys came up to us, trying to sell us the packages of glitter body art that were so popular everywhere. I’d already said no several times to just such a sales pitch.
We talked a little about India and America.
I was distracted as one of the boys pulled me aside to say, “Be careful. There are bad people in Varanasi. Lots of bad people in Varanasi for tourists.”
“Thanks, but I think we’ll be okay.” I told him.
“But there are many bad men in Varanasi. The holy man by the fire, they are bad, bad men. They take your money. Don’t give them any money.”
“The men at the fire?” I asked, “But we already gave them money.”
“How much?” another one of the boys perked up at my response.
“I’m not sure.”
“Did you buy one kilo or a half kilo?” they asked.
“I just gave money. I didn’t buy either.”
“No, they ask for one hilo or half. How much did you give? One hundred fifty rupees, half a kilo?”
I was starting to not feel good about this. Their knowledge of the amounts requested confirmed all my previous suspicions.
“That is the amount he was asking, but I only gave a hundred rupees.”
The boy moaned, “No. He is not a good man. He take the money and only give five, ten rupees to the people.”
I sighed, suddenly being aware of what the man in the crowd was trying to warn us about. I had felt reassured that I was with a holy man, but the joke was on me.