- Listed: July 11, 2011 8:50 pm
An Evening at the Burning Ghats
My friend, Paul, a Canadian fromVancouverB.C., and I walked north following the banks of theGangesRiver. The sun was hot even in late afternoon. We were in the holy city ofBenares, currently namedVaranasi. Sacred to all Hindus, it is a lifetime goal to reach the city and die there. Ritual bathing at dawn attracted thousands of pilgrims who came to be cleansed in the river’s water believing their sins will be washed away. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Benares hosts a large population and mixes new with old. Ancient temples, many thought to date back a thousand years, thrust their magnificently decorated sides high into the air over streets crowded with bicycles, automobiles, trucks, wooden wheeled wagons pulled by bullocks, and motorcycle driven local taxis with a seat mounted over two wheels in the rear. All maneuvered around holy cows which were everywhere. There were so many that often one had to step around them to enter buildings! Paul suddenly stopped and pointed.
“Look, Charlie, those are the burning ghats up ahead.”
The ghats are the buildings and platforms where religious funerals are held. Priests offer prayers for the newly departed while families and friends gather around the body wrapped in a white cloth. The Hindu way is to cremate the body in a pyre of flames. The cremation ceremonies are generally done at night. I raised my camera to take a picture of the area and was interrupted by an angry man shouting at me. He wore a white turban and his bearded face was contorted in anger.
“No photos, no photos!”
I lowered my camera and we turned to walk away, but the man was not finished. He waved to two other men who joined him. Paul and I were sternly berated for even thinking about taking pictures in such a holy place. We both apologized and were allowed to leave. I felt regretful, but I still wanted a picture. I walked some distance away and found a corner of a building. I got on my knees and snuck a shot that took in both the river and the ghats. Many months later, when I returned to California, I was finally able to see the processed photo. After all the trouble, I was relieved to find that the shot had turned out fine and quite clearly depicted the temples lining the Ganges and the platforms piled high with stacks of wood.
The Aroma of Food
We began the walk back to our rooms on the second story of a tourist hostel. The aroma of food from restaurants and sidewalk vendors along the way caused my stomach to growl. I suggested to Paul that we go get some dinner and he agreed. We passed sidewalks and walls covered with round patties of animal dung which had been picked off the streets by young girls and their mothers. They were then shaped by their hands into round patties and left to dry in the hot sun. Once dry, the patties were used in cooking fires, as well as to provide heat. Nothing is wasted in India. Even street vendors sell hot tea in thin clay cups that are then thrown on the ground to break. They are dis-solved by the rain back into the soil. Organic garbage is left on the streets to be eaten by the holy cows, goats, pigs, dogs and cats that are always present. And yes, as we approached our hostel, we were obliged to step over two holy cows who lay blocking the entrance. We washed up, relaxed a bit, and walked six blocks to a restaurant we liked.
Paul studied the menu while I looked around. All the other tables were occupied, mostly by tourists. I heard French, Swedish, Italian, German, Spanish, as well as English, being spoken.
“I’m going to order the Dal Makhani,” announced Paul.
The dish was a traditional recipe from Kashmir, one of India’s hilly northern provinces, and is made with black lentils and red kidney beans which are soaked overnight. Then they are slowly cooked over low heat with tomatoes, ginger and garlic. The Dal Makhani is cooked for hours until the spices are blended and has a rich orange-red sauce. The delicious meal is served with basmati rice along with naan and pita bread.
“Good choice,” I said. “I’m going to have the Punjab Chutney.”
‘You like to live dangerously,” said Paul as he smiled.
“Well, it is spicy, that’s for sure.”
The farmers of Punjab, another northern Indian province, grow chickpeas which are called choley. They are sauteed along with onions, garlic, and tomatoes in a richly spiced and tangy sauce. I like to have the dish served over rice along with a plateful of naan bread.
“What do you want to do later on?” asked Paul as the waiter brought our meals and set them before us. He poured water for us, bowed slightly and left.
“I don’t know,” I said. “We sure had a close call today at the ghats. Man, those guys were irate,” I placed a forkful of choley in my mouth. Spicy! I drank half a glass of water.
“Maybe we can sneak into one of the stone temples built over the ghats and watch from above. What do you think?” asked Paul as he dug into his dal and nodded his approval of the chef’s creation.
“We can try,” I said. “Remember that tunnel we walked through the other day? When we reached the end I saw stone steps that led up to a six-sided tower.”
“Okay, sounds like a plan. Let’s go later on when it’s good and dark,” said Paul.
Returning to the Ghats
Night descended on Benares and we left our hostel. Vendors sold samosas, (cooked meat wrapped in a pastry), from carts on street corners. Crowds bustled up and down the sidewalks. Women, resplendent in their colorful saris, were on their way to enjoy an evening out with their well-dressed men. We slowly made our way to the river and found the tunnel. Paul lit a hash pipe, took a hit and handed it to me. Years of smoking marijuana and hashish had resulted in my night vision being shot. We entered the tunnel and began to move forward. I was soon engulfed in an inky blackness so dark that I could not see a thing. Now I was both stoned and blind! I groped my way taking one careful step at a time. The place stunk and I didn’t know what I was stepping on. Mud? Whatever it was felt wet and slimy. I thought I heard the squeaky noises of rats and shud-dered. Paul had swiftly moved ahead and was soon gone. I cautiously proceeded one slow step at a time. Time was suspended and it seemed to take forever before I began to see a faint light up ahead. I finally emerged from the tunnel, took in a deep breath of fresh air and sighed with relief. Paul was standing at the bottom of the temple.
“What took you so long?”
I declined to answer and followed him as we ascended a long flight of stairs which led to an ancient tower carved from stone and built with six sides. Each wall had an open window in the Mughal style with scalloped top and ornate carvings down each side. We found places to sit and looked out on the Ganges. Boats anchored along the riverside had multi-colored lights which shimmered and reflected in the moving water below. Paul lit a pipe of hash, took a hit and passed it to me. I inhaled, held the smoke in, and slowly exhaled. We heard the sound of music and chanting in the distance. Soon the sounds echoed off the tower walls and we glanced down in time to see a procession of white clothed people playing tambourines, flutes, drums and other assorted instruments. They were led by a priest with shaven head who wore garlands of orange flowers around his neck and loudly clapped his hands as he walked.
“Ram, Ram, Ram”
“Ram, Ram, Ram,” cried the priest which in Hindi means God.
The body was carried by family members and the line of mourners headed for the burning ghats. Paul and I watched mesmerized from our windows as the line of people stopped before a stack of wood that rose high above their heads. The body was placed on top of the stack and the priest walked around and lit the wood in several places. Flames began to erupt and smoke rose in the night air. Bright red and orange sparks were carried by updrafts and flew past us as we took in the scene below.
“Here,” Paul said and passed me the pipe.
I took a hit and passed it back.
By now the body was fully consumed by the fire and the group of mourners stood respect-fully at a distance and watched as their dear one was cremated.
“That kind of makes me think about my own mortality,” I observed.
Paul looked at me and smiled.
“My old Dad used to say that you’ll never get out of this life alive.”
We both laughed, but I felt disconnected, like I was observing everything from somewhere outside of myself. I turned my head and glanced out the window. The center scallop stood out in the flickering light from the fire beneath us. Directly below it a silvery crescent moon lay precisely on its back. Without having to adjust my head, the moon formed a perfect circle with the scalloped center of the window.
I stared in amazement and a feeling of deep spiritual awe swept through me. Yes, death is certain and, in that moment, I chose to live my life in a way that reflected caring, love and compassion. I took another look at the circle, closed my eyes, and silently uttered a prayer of heartfelt acknowledgment and gratitude.
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