August 28, 2009

Varanasi is a Six Flags for dead people.

It is THE place to die in India since, according to Hindus, dying in or near the Ganges pretty much obliterates all those pesky rounds of reincarnation.
If you die in Varanasi, you ride a roller coaster to enlightenment.

Somewhere on the outskirts of the city, a man with a booming voice says, “Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle.” The dead person’s family takes that pretty literally. They tuck him into a stretcher made of bamboo. Then they wrap the corpse in several decorative garments and, depending on how much money they have, add several layers of ornamentation.

The same loud man says, “Enjoy your ride and the rest of the day at Six Flags.”

The corpse is then on its bumpy journey, carried above the heads of his dear family members. He careens down the crowded labyrinth of streets, Godly chants in his ears. He accelerates as the family pulses downhill. He streams past restaurants and tourists and sitars and astrologers and yogis and goats and sadhus and men selling tins and samosas and tea and spices. He stops short to avoid a cow and rises above the stampede of religious pilgrims pushing pushing pushing. His cart bumps bops bumps to the rhythm of his marching stretcher bearers and takes on one last downhill slope until gliding to a stop.

This ride offers the choose-as-you-go ending, so not all corpses land at the same destination. The unwritten Varanasi law does the choosing for the corpse depending on wealth, status, cause of death, and whether or not he was pregnant when he passed.

This particular corpse was a regular stand-up guy who owned a copy-making/faxing business in Bihar, the next state over. He had a wife and two daughters, but they aren’t with him on the ride. Women aren’t allowed to accompany their loved ones because, according to the boat driver on the Ganges, “they might cry.” Fortunately, he had a son and some cousins, so they are with him to make sure he gets the royal treatment.

He is. He had 8000 rupees ($160 US), and so he is fortunate to be burned with real fire wood. His stretcher lowers to a pile of wood, and the sweaty employees pile more on top of him. One of them puts on a tenth layer, but another takes it off after realizing the 8000 rupees only covers 9 layers of wood. If they want a tenth, they’ll have to pay.

The man with the booming voice shouts, “Hope you enjoyed your stay. Please come again.”
The cousins cringe because they hope their cousin never has to come again. That’s the reason they drove him all the way up to the Ganges and missed their cricket match.

After a while, the man from Bihar is burnt; the cousins chant a mantra and slip his ashes into the lukewarm river.

The man with the booming voice leaves. He has an appointment just down the road. The ride has abruptly ended for an orphan who fell off her bike and was trampled by a horse-drawn carriage. She has some girlfriends, but again they aren’t allowed to accompany her on her ride. Tears might put out the fire. The orphanage director had no time to come either, but he instructed the employees to do her right, and slipped them 500 rupees ($10 US). This is an electrical facility so they put her body on a sort of stove for humans. Since no one is there to watch, one employee shuts off the hot stove, pockets the money, and slips her body into the river. Whole.

The man with the booming voice shouts, “Hope you enjoyed your stay. Please come again.”
Her body will later wash up on the other bank of the Ganges, a dog will eat at her neck, and some tourists on a boat will take a picture. It will be their seventh dead body sighting that day.
Kids, pregnant women, and men who died from cobra bites will also be thrown into the Ganges whole. Their rides end as they are swathed in white and thrown in with a plop. Even if they are chewed up by dogs or fish, it’s just the continuation of life. And at least it’s all happening in the Ganges, the holiest river on Earth.

The Varanasi Six Flags is home to several employees who live right in the park and work to ensure the corpses’ families and the constant religious pilgrims who come each year to bathe away their sins have a place to stay, eat, pray, and buy scarves that say things about God. These employees along with the pilgrims bathe in the river daily. Many also wash their clothes, do their duty, brush their teeth, bathe their water buffalo, swim, cut their hair, and pray right in the river– among the bobbing bodies and trash that is hosed into the Ganges from the streets every afternoon! It’s a holy river. It can handle anything.

Varanasi is a Six Flags that never closes. One million pilgrims pass through each year, and the burning of bodies goes round-the-clock. It’s even hard to get an appointment and some corpses wait in a long line. Longer than the line at the Superman Ride.

Some say the Ganges is disgusting. Some say it’s miraculous. I personally thought it was pretty comfortable. The temperature was bath-like, and it was nice to bathe with a bunch of other people. If I hadn’t had already seen a man pooping next to a girl brushing her teeth and a few floating bodies, I would have stayed in longer. I lasted about two minutes.

This Indian guy turned white! There’s something strange in that water.

These guys are on hand to sew the crotch of any pants in Varanasi. Many pilgrims get excited in the Ganges and do the splits.

Air conditioning for water buffalo.

“Aw damn. I dropped my toothbrush, and I picked up a finger instead.”

-Grammy, that tourist is taking a picture of our bath time. -Yeah, white people are weird.

Three of these photos were shot by my friend, Pete.
If you want to see more about the cremation tradition, this site has great photos and explanations.


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