On the itinerary we are to be going on a boat trip.
This is no ordinary boat trip; this one is on the holy river of the Gangees.
You may have seen images of the Gangees on your telly from time to time. The images will doubtless include hoards of people bathing in the sacred river and making sure that the water washes over every inch of them. I am told by Meeester, font of all religious knowledge, that Hindus believe that the water of the Gangees will purify them. Just like the old Catholic trick of going to confession to erase your spiritual hard drive, a quick dip in the Gangees will wash those sins away.
If you survive the typhus, you can live your life, guilt free.
The Gangees is so special that it has actual Goddess status in India. The reason for this is that it provides India with most of its water. Including its drinking water. It deserves to be worshipped. It's the same deal for cows. Cows are godesses as they provide the people with milk. That's fair enough. I'm all for the worshipping of the real and tangible. Maybe this Hinduism lark isn't as wacky as the images of wee blue guys and half-men/half-elephants makes it look. But I'm thinking that the chickens really do have a case here. All those eggs and not one bit of respect.
So, we’ve established a few things about the Gangees:
- People bathe in it
- People worship it
- People drink it
OK, so why then, are there mountains of crap being chucked into it? Is it OK for a Catholic to drop kick a soiled nappy into the Vatican? No. Would St Paul's Cathedral be satisfied with someone emptying their car ashtray into the pulpit? I don't think so. And Synagogues frown upon someone relieving themselves on the doorstep, I am told.
As we float on the river in our rowing boat, looking back at the Varanasi pilgrimage site steps which are the ones you see on the telly showing masses of Pilgrims washing their cares away, there are mountains of untreated sewage and refuse. Kids are diving into the river right beside the raw sewage. I see a man
cup a handful of Gangees into his mouth inches away from effluent dribbling from a pipe directly into the goddess.
Mentally I am running though the database in my mind and double checking the status of our inoculations. Hurriedly I tell the kids NOT to dip their hands in the water or open their mouths.
As “luck” would have it, aside from the daily sin washing rituals of the pilgrims, there’s something a bit special going on tonight. For some reason I do not find this out til I am on the boat with no choice but to witness it. The special event is the burning of some bodies on a funeral pyre next to the Gangees. Today 300 bodies have been burnt already. Sniff the air and you can smell them. Open your eyes and you can see them.
Focusing on the billowing smoke at first it takes us a couple of minutes to realise we can clearly see about ten bodies lined up on the steps ready to be flung in. They are covered in brightly coloured silk but there's no mistaking what's underneath.
Varanasi is famous for this ritual. Being cremated in this way ensures that people release their five skandas (elements) back to the Universe. It is the holiest death you can get. Having your ashes scattered directly into the Gangees gets you spiritually where you want to go. Hence Varanasi is chock full of old folk hanging about waiting for death with their names on the funeral pyre waiting list.
It’s a fun town.
I am wondering if the experience is greater if the ashes are still hot. Hence the proximity of the pyre to the river. I muse on whether the same effect can be achieved by a relative calmly traveling to Varanasi with a pot of cold relative ash from their hometown and quietly scattering them on the river. I am clearly not getting Hinduism.
In the interests of balance and religious understanding can I just quote Religion and Philosophy maestro, Meeester, who does get Hinduism,
“This scene reveals Hinduism’s ancient and primal heart. It is shocking to us, with Western sensibilities, looking like a scene from Hell. But to the Hindus this is the essence of their beliefs”
Yeah, talk to the hand, Meeester. My kids are looking at dead grannies being chucked on a fire. Suddenly I'm thinking Eurodisney might be a good idea next time.
The holy human barbecue also provides some entertainment for the locals. A crowd is watching as bodies are being chucked on the fire. Beers are being drunk, picnics are being eaten and business is being done between the local town hoodlums. We suspect that the families of the deceased are in there somewhere, but to us it looks like folk have come out to watch like they would a parade. There are professional mourners, local dignitaries sat in high seats taking “donations”, and a wild haired and loin cloth clad bloke who looked like a deranged Indian Charles Manson dancing and chanting over the next body in the queue. He was the priest.
We maintain a respectful distance. To be honest, quite few of us, can’t bear to look. Some of the pupils are visibly blanching.
Indy pipes up, “Mum, I just saw one being thrown on the fire!”
So my ten year old has just seen a dead body being chucked on a fire. I’m not so sure I feel good about this life experience he has just had. In one year we’ve gone from explaining what happened after death to Molly, our now deceased family cat, to casually watching cadavers tipped into an inferno.
But it gets better. The boat moors beside the burning activities and we are invited to go have a wee looky, close up. At some burning bodies. On a bonny.
No photos though. That would be disrespectful.
I brace myself for someone offering my son a stick so that he could have a wee poke at the bodies on the fire.
Religion. Don't you just love it?
Religion. Don't you just love it?
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