Monday, March 24, 2014


This is as close as I could come to an answer for my aide Marva, who asked me where the bodies that float down the Ganges in India end up. Varanasi is a sacred site along the river where the dead are cremated on burning ghats, stepped platforms that lead to the water. Hundreds of bodies are burned each day, from the relatives of the wealthy who employ untouchables and use expensive sandalwood to those of the less fortunate who do it themselves. Photographs of the ritual are strictly prohibited, but a tourist describes, "Each body is shrouded decoratively and carried down to the Ganges River where it is doused in its holy waters before the decorative shroud is removed and the body left shrouded in linen is carried to the pyre by family members. Placed on the pyre, additional wood is added and the eldest son touches off the tinder around the pyre with the aid of holy ghee (clarified butter) to assist the burning. It was important to keep our Western eyes and minds open with our prejudices at bay, since it is easy to be disturbed at the sight of partially burned bodies being prodded in the flames, limbs being broken off for the fire to consume and finally, when the body was almost fully burned, a bamboo pole being used to pierce the skull to allow the deceased's spirit to go free." Some corpses – those of holy men, pregnant women, suicides, the diseased, the poor, and small children – are not cremated but simply floated free. Cremated or not, the bodies are feasted on by vultures, scavenged for the gold and silver in their teeth, and allowed to decompose in the waters. The short answer is that I think there is not much left to pile up downriver.

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