Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The living and the dead

Waking up at 5:00am is never a good thing for me. I was scrambling around my hotel room gathering my photography needs racing against time. This day I had a bus to catch a boat tour the Ganges River in Varanasi, India.
 I only packed a backpack for this overnight excursion so it would seem my task wouldn't be hard.  When I pulled out my clothes I found I was missing my hairbrush, makeup, pajamas, and shoes.  Obviously my mind wasn’t put together when I packed the morning of my flight .
I didn’t know anything about Varanasi India except word that it was filthy but beautiful and a great place to take photos along the Ganges River.  This eased the pain of waking before dawn to be on the River when the sun emerged.  I also didn’t know how COLD it was going to be.  I’m in India after all!
I stepped off the bus with unkept hair,no makeup, shorts and flip flops.  I didn’t care, I was looking forward to the beautiful pictures that awaited me at the river bank.  
Before loading the bus I unplugged the battery for my camera only to find it was dead. Every drop-drained! Tough way to learn the outlet doesn’t work 
I sadly parted with it finding slight comfort in knowing my video camera was powered with a batterie to spare and I carried my cell phone.

I didn’t know I was about to walk through a world where my pictures couldn’t do justice in capturing what I would see anyway. 
Repulsed by everything I saw I admitted I was glad I didn’t carry it.  I didn’t want to pause and focus on anything.  Instead, I held my video camera close against my chest and tiptoed like I was walking through broken glass,
My exposed feet jumped over garbage, animal feces, dirty water, and homeless men randomly plopped throughout the village. I didn’t know if they were dead or alive and I’m afraid no one else in the village knew either.  

The prior night I visited the River only to see the golden glow of the Village lights reflecting on the water, and smoke rising from scattered fires along the shore.  The fires didn’t seem unusual given the cold night air.  
The leisure ride ended abruptly when the guide gave description to the fires.  He announced them as “Cremation” fires.  

Thinking this was the beginning of a First Century story I turned my attention to the scene ahead.
I saw a gatherings of men dressed in ceremonial clothing and piles and piles of wood lining the long descent of stairs to the river and oddly stacked against buildings.  I suspended my imagination and allowed his story to be true.

I saw so many people, so many fires, so much movement through the smoke.   
It wasn’t until the guide continued to explain the scene that unfolded before my eyes that it became clear he wasn’t telling stories!
These were indeed cremation fires!
My eyes gazed into the flames that engulfed it’s contents.
Although I was completely shocked, I didn’t want to turn away.  I didn’t want to look to closely either.  I didn’t want to believe it but it was right in front of me. 
Then the puzzle began to come together.  
The Ancient religious rituals about the Ganges River still exist in this city!

I leaned over the edge of the boat to look into the water of death and life.  It was gross, but then again it was dark.
I was advised NOT to touch the water.  

That night I tried to wash away the smell of smoke that clung to my body. I took a long HOT shower. I tried not to think of what I felt down on that river. 

Returning the next morning I was hopeful to see life replace the darkness that suffocated the late night.
The street I was traveling on now was loud and busy at such an early hour.  Market owners were opening shops, beggars had already established their spot, and the heads of sleepy homeless men poked out from under scraps that covered them.
I walked past the man that looked like a corpse  the night before and felt relieved he was sitting on his bedding.
A gathering of men were heard chanting and marching to the rhythm of bells and some other noise behind me.  Eventually it caught up to me and I jumped out of the way.  They moved past as if I wasn’t there.  In fact, everyone on the streets seem to move past me in slow motion as if I wasn’t there, except the beggars.  I tried to understand what was happening, I tried to absorb it but I didn’t want to get left behind.  I was told this ritual happens every morning before sunrise.  They move toward the River and perform religious rituals.  

I stared like a little kid when I saw people washing in the River.  Do they understand dead people are sprinkled in this river everyday? For Centuries!!? 
An old man wearing only his loin cloth cupped water over his shoulders.  He wasn’t anxious to get out nor was the heavy set woman down the way.  Her body language announced the water was cold for this time of morning. she bobbed up and down inching her way deeper with each hop.

The anticipated sunrise went unnoticed as a result of thick fog in the air, mixed with fresh smoke of a new cremation site. This time I didn’t look at the fires.  We were too close to the river bank allowing visibility I wasn’t willing to have.
The buildings that were a glowing silhouette the night before looked worn, almost like burn victims.  I’m sure they were once grand and beautiful, but today it lacked.  
Again I saw the pile of wood suffocating the broad stairs.  In day light they seemed to have multiplied.  They were all the same size, color, and length.  Perfectly rounded  logs,small enough to carry but big enough for the purpose at hand.  

With the morning light I could see the backdrop of this stage.  Haunting is the word that comes to mind.  I am so glad I had my video camera for proof of what is there.  The boat docked at the shore adjacent the wood pile and I tiptoed onto the blunt cement stone. 
 We followed a well worn dirt  path that wiggled through walls without roofs, mud from unknown fluids, cows that blocked the small width, and sticky air.  
 At first the smell was defecating.  I can’t say that i’d ever experienced that scent.  I held my sleeve covering my face but it didn’t do the trick.
 Now and then I would abruptly stop to capture things with my video camera. I felt like a rat in a sewer.
The village people didn’t seem bothered we were invading their narrow paths.  They went on as usual, moving around me when I stopped to watch monkeys jump overhead, cows rummage the street trash, or step into an alley to investigate strange things.  
Finally we were on a paved road.  It wasn’t until I emerged from paths that I noticed the lack of direct sunlight.  
That place was hidden under shadows.
I climbed back into the bus, fighting beggars along the way, and sunk into the comfort of familiarity.  
I looked down at my dirty feet, returned to the hotel and  took another HOT shower, trying not to think about what I felt down on that river.


  1. And yet...while attempting to 'not think about what you felt down on that River', it is CLEAR from your writings, that you never felt MORE ALIVE and connected to humanity. Certainly, it was ugly and you couldn't have forseen the extreme intensity of it all but it's LIFE and it's DEATH and its RELIGION and its CULTURE and moves forward regardless of how it looks. And it shifts your paradigm and you will be changed forever as a result of it. And my guess is, Ember...you'll NEVER unload those thoughts or images. Thank you for sharing!:-) Namasté. --Lisa B.

    1. You're exactly right. I like the way you summed that up. Great insight.
      Thanks for reading :)

  2. Ember, You were able to put our visit to Varanasi into words. I still can't do it. But your words are beautiful! I loved this post. Thanks! Ann Herlin