Burning in Beranas

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The ancient city of Beranas is rumored to be one of the longest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is so old that consorts of Hindu gods are said to have been cremated here. Generations of maharajas have built towering palaces, which served as a sort of retirement homes, on the banks of the Ganges River, affectionately called Mother Ganga. The city is now more commonly called Veranasi, the holiest city in India.

It is a truly magical place, a confluence of spiritual energy. Throngs of pilgrims come here to bathe, cleanse, and purify body and spirit in the filthy water of the holiest river in India. Dying here or being cremated releases a Hindu from the constant cycle of reincarnation, so life meets death on the banks of the Ganges. Funeral pyres burn constantly as male members of family watch quietly. Beggars, sadhu holy men, pilgrims, hawkers, scammers, boatmen, tourists, kids playing cricket, cows, goats, dogs, and buffalo mingle on the concrete steps which line the river. Nevertheless, in spite of all the happening, the banks of the Ganges in Veranasi are quiet and peaceful.

It is one of those strange places which escape description. Words Photos do not capture the motion, and video fails to convey the smell and the vibe, and words do not do it justice. You just have to be there.

In Veranasi we learned a bit about the Hindu religion and ceremonies, concentrating mainly on the ones which come at the end of life. Bodies of the recently deceased are constantly brought out to the bank of the river on simple bamboo stretchers. They are bathed one last time in the river, while worker boys deliver firewood and build a simple pyre. The body is placed on top, covered with more wood, and certain rituals take place. Fire is brought from the eternal flame in the Shivas temple, and everyone quietly watches as the body returns to ashes. As the flames settle down the remains are shuffled to the center of the flame, and the skull is cracked with a stick to help the cremation. Only male family is present, as women tend to weep and there is a danger they may throw themselves into the fire after their husband. The entire process is very casual, somewhat mechanical, strangely un-solemn, and quite mundane. Sitting right there watching, it is difficult to grasp that human bodies are simply burning right there.

While we were there, there was a full moon and a lunar eclipse. We stayed up all night watching larger than usual masses of people celebrating a Shiva festival. People were bathing en-masse. Priests offered blessings, some people slept, others sang. People were in various stages of getting dressed and undressed for their encounter with the holy water of the Ganges. As the night sky turned dark blue, the morning puja cleansing rituals took over the banks of the river. Meanwhile, in the distance, bodies kept burning on the pyre at the burning ghats. It was a quiet subdued carnival of human spirit and devotion.

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