First off, did you miss Part One? No problem. It’s right here.
My arrival in Varanasi really set the tone for my entire time there. I would rarely be alone whenever I was outside. There was always someone to talk to and quite often a “Hello!” would be followed by a sales pitch soon after. But even then, there were stories tucked away in the sales pitches and scams.
Soon after I arrived, night fell and I made my way down to Dashashwamedh Ghat for the evening aarti ceremony. There were actually three of them going on at the same time. I started at the small one but soon was directed to the largest.
I admit I know very little about the significance of the ceremony. While songs are sung, Pandits bring out many lamps with burning camphor and offer them in the four directions at the border of the Ganga river. Before the lamps were brought out, I stood against a wall and watched. Some folks went through a door and I saw some light coming from within.
And before long the lamps were brought out.
A couple nights later I would go to see it again – this time from some seating up above.
After my first viewing of the aarti I decided to walk north toward the burning ghat. Before long I met a tout. He started with small talk but before long it was clear he wanted me to go to his shop to look at fabrics and saris (Banarasi saris are very famous). I’m not someone to get souvenirs when I travel that I can’t use. I prefer to take pictures, visit places, meet people and create memories rather than bring home things. Sage didn’t want anything either and specifically said “Don’t bring anything home for me – I will be mad if you do.” and so I didn’t. But we chatted and walked and then as I got closer to the burning ghat he introduced me to a friend of his. He told me he was from a volunteer organization that helps people who can’t afford funerals pay for wood and to educate people on the funeral practices. And so off we went, with him telling me about the history of the space (it’s been operating for thousands of years), and who can and cannot be cremated. As we talked we got closer to the pyres until I was so close I could feel my skin burning. There before me was very hot fire with a person on it. The experience was not as uncomfortable as I expected. Everyone around was acting as if this was a very normal occurrence – which of course it is. There wasn’t anything particularly gruesome-seeming about it. Just a natural end to life. There wasn’t even the bad smell I would’ve expected. Just the smell of wood smoke and sandalwood. We stood there for a moment before going up the ghat to a building behind it with a broken out clock face in the tower.
I am generally a very rational person but that tower looked extremely familiar. I feel like I’d seen it in a dream so that gave me a bit of a chill when I was there. A very similar chill to the one I felt as I was walking up to our building when we moved to Canada and I realized that I’d dreamed of our neighbourhood as a teenager. Or something very much like it.
In any case, up the stairs we went where he continued his explanation and we went to a small fireplace where I was told the fire had been burning continuously for millennia and from which all of the pyres were lit.
At the end of this my guide told me that the volunteer organization he works with pays for wood for funerals. I would give money to an older woman at the front and she would give me a blessing. He asked for me to give a suggested donation of anything from $30-200 – I’m too embarrassed to say what I gave, though, because days later I read that this was a scam – and these folks had nothing to do with the place.
But there’s an example of what I’ve talked about before in the comments on the previous entry: Yes, I lost some money, but I also got a story and later on an official tour found out that all the information that was given was completely accurate. So it wasn’t so bad.
The only thing I do feel bad about was that I was brought so close. On that same official tour we were asked to remain a respectful distance. This is about as close as we ever got:
After that I walked back toward my hotel. It was a little later so it had quieted down. Still there was the sound of boats on the river, bells in the distance and a woman alone by the river singing. I sat for a while and took it all in. It was so peaceful.
And then the first tout came by and tried to get me to come to his store again. I still wasn’t having any of it. Then we talked about his plans. He was trying to put himself through college at the moment. We continued to chat for a bit before it was time for me to head back to the hotel to get some sleep. I gave him a bit of money for school – it wasn’t much, maybe enough for a fast food lunch at home, but it was something. And maybe it would pay for his class or maybe it would go somewhere I wouldn’t want to see it go. But in the end, I’ll know only one thing. If I gave him nothing, there was a 0% chance of him getting money that would help pay for school. If I gave him something there was a non-zero chance of that happening. That was worth risking losing a little money for…