Hindus believe in reincarnation, that after death our spirit, an atman, can be released to be reborn as any living being, to learn again in a search for enlightenment. The gods as a gift, gave the river Ganges so that once your ashes have been scattered into the holly water, the rebirth cycle can end. As a result Varanasi has become the holy land where the old come to await death and the dead come to be cremated. Coming from a western background, where people do not want to talk about the death and it is very much a hidden closed subject, it is a stage experience to watch the burning of bodies in public. To publicly share such private, intense moments; to be sat next to a man grieving as he holds back the tears, face in hands looking out on the steps to his burning brother. There are over 300 cremations held every day, and it is the only place where it is allowed to set cremation fires all through the day and night. Seeing so many bodies burn and to so openly deal with death does make you think more about the fragility of life.
Families will bring the bodies of their loved ones here, they purchase the wood and set up the fires in the two designated ghats. The bodies have been cleaned and depressed in fine clothes and then wrapped in a clean sheet. Often some of the holy water from the Ganges will be poured in their mouth as the last drink to cleanse them. Next the eldest brother will place a burning stick in the mouth of the deceased, the funeral pyre will then be lit, the fire believed to purify the soul. After this there will be days of mourning, the men will shave their heads leaving just a small amount of hair at the back as a sign that they are in mourning. Women do not attend the cremations, as in the past women have thrown themselves too into the fire in grief. Today, they are believed to be there too emotional too attend, an example of a still very male dominated land of inequality.
Among the cremations you will see people bathing in the water, praying and even drinking it. At night boats flock in, gathering around the daily Pujahas, the echos of prayers, bellowing bells chime as the fires burn around you and small candles are set afloat on the river. Thousands of hopeful prayers floating down the stream hoping to be answered, among the scattered souls.