Sun creeps through the blinds and the chants of prayers, which have become our new alarm, ring loud around us. Throwing my tierd heavy body out of bed, into the shower and out the door, I would stand absorbed by the morning routine that awaited my eyes. A stream of red robes, hung off the shoulders of young boys, shaved heads, bare foots as they stood patiently in line each holding out their bowl to collect food from the village. These were young men in training, a right of passage for all boys to enter a life devoted to Buddhism. Once they have learnt the teachings of Buddha and spent several weeks living on the monasteries they may choose if they wish to return to their families and lives or continue to the path of enlightenment.
Buddhism for these people is more than a religion, a way of life. It is integral to their being. It distinguishes their values, their beliefs, behaviours. Like a Holy Communion or Bar Mitzvah, they will grow up to learn the teachings, celebrating their entrance into the monasteries, spending weeks away from their families. Monks wondering the streets is a common site, as people continue to dedicate themselves to the teachings of Buddha. A country adorned by temples. When Looking out to Old Bagan, to the earthy washed landscape of dry baron land, ancient temples take to the horizon. Walking across the land, amongst the temples, there is a sense of calm, stillness across these quite grounds. Grounds that have been respected, worshipped for centuries. It is these pagoda’s and temples where the people spend their time. When travelling you see limited places fro entertainment, cinemas, sports, clubs all limited, if at all. it is the festivals at the temples that people part take in. As a result you notice, how gentle, kind the Burmese are, they are modest and respectful. Despite, all they are subjected to by the rulings of the country, they have faith, they stay true to what they belief in.
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.