100 Days in India Project

Cows and the Crematorium

27/ 100 Cows and the Crematorium

We were told that if you are a Hindu, dying and being cremated in the Indian city of Varanasi, on the banks of the river Ganges, is possibly the best way to end your physical existence. So much so, in fact, that people nearing the end of their lives relocate to the town to be sure that they will be able to have the cremation ritual they want. The pile of logs in this picture is for the traditional funeral pyres, and the building in the centre is the official gas-powered crematorium that nobody wants to use, even though it costs less. Many of the people in the photograph are tourists, encouraged by locals to pay a little money to get up close to the action. For us it was all quite strange for so many reasons that I think I will split it across a couple of stories.

As far as we could tell there were at least two cremation ghats in Varanasi, one at either end of the waterfront to ensure a healthy sprinkling of human ashes throughout the town whichever way the wind was blowing. It is a huge industry for the people who occupy the ghats for the long stretch of ancient stone steps that border the soupy and sacred river Ganges. Large gatherings of families visiting, buying trinkets, buying holy Ganges water, purchasing containers to fill with Ganges water yourself, and all the snacks you might need for a cremation are available for sale.

People make money from organising boat trips so you can get a beautiful view of the burning bodies from the water itself (Chinese tourists seemed particularly keen on this, and were often seen standing on balconies directly in the smoke above the bodies themselves). Local touts would take you to a good spot for photography, for a price. If you strayed too close and if you refused to pay they told you that you couldn’t go on your own (this isn’t actually true, but we had no intention of photographing anyway). I got the impression that the funeral-goers were just as perturbed by this voyeuristic industry as we were.

Today’s weird fact – as part of the cremation ritual you must be burned to a crisp with all of your jewellery in place. The ashes are then swept straight into the shallow river’s edge where you will find small teams of people quite literally panning for gold. They stand knee deep in the mind-bendingly horrible sludge of human remains and toxic water, swirling the carbonised people around with a bit of holy water until they find a speck of gold. Then, we were told, they melt it down, make a nice bit of jewellery and sell it to unknowing tourists.

On a more lighthearted note, one of the ways you could get your body to the cremation Ghat was on a repurposed lifeboat. We saw it every day, bringing new bodies for the rituals. Would it now be called deathboat perhaps?