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Smoke rising to heaven

March 21, 2007

I spent my last day in India in Varanasi, a city older than God. Varanasi bends around the Ganges, India’s holiest river. It’s a pilgrimage site for millions of Hindus who come to bathe in the water in the hopes that they can escape their Karmic cycling and move on. No more coming back and living another life as a cow or a fruit fly.

Varanasi was one of the most challenging places I visited in India, and one of the most peaceful. There is more poverty here than I have seen so far. Lots of folks living in tiny hovels, wearing little more than shreds. The touts from those selling everything from taxi rides to spiritual healing is nearly relentless. I did completely succumb, however, to the cutest little girl at one of the ghats. She was probably seven years old and approached me with total confidence, asking if I wanted to buy one of the little bowls she had laid out in the basket she was carrying. Each bowl was made of woven leaves and held rose petals and one small candle. I said “no” as politely as I could, several times, but she took my hand and led me down the stone steps to the river’s edge to show me how it’s done. She set down her basket and deftly struck a match. She lit the candle and told me to put it in the water. I asked her if she would do it for me and she did. I saw a wise sage in that little girl, worldly way beyond her years. Her soul could have spent a hundred trips through this life. She could have been the collected spirit of the entire city of Varanasi before it was plundered and burned by the Mughals. She held that moment in the palm of her hand and commanded my attention with the softest of little girl voices. In that moment, she owned me. She placed the bowl in the water and gave it a push. It moved out into the slow-moving Ganges to join the dozen or so other flickering lights.

There are over eighty ghats in Varanasi, all on the West side of the river as it makes a bend to the East. The asymmetry of the buildings only being on one side works perfectly for the purpose of pilgrimage. Some sixty thousand a day come to wash their souls, or their hair, or their cows. They approach the water with towering temples behind them, atop steep stairs of varying pitch and depth. Before them, their holiest of rivers. And on the other side, emptiness. Brown grass, blue sky, and a gentle breeze. There is on this river bank, literally and spiritually, this side and the other side. On the human side, suffering. On the other side, redemption. Heaven. Peace.

Indians also bring their dead to be cremated at two of the ghats. Outcasts from the lowest castes build funeral pyres with just the right amount of wood to cremate a person. There are about a dozen fires going at once.

My father was cremated less than two years ago. The last time we saw him was in his hospital bed. After we left the hospital, his body was removed, prepared, and cremated. We then took his ashes to Huntington to be sprinkled in the Ohio, our own holy river. At Varanasi, families prepare the body. They then drape it with layers of shimmering gold fabric and carry it down to the water’s edge. They give the body a quick dip, remove the layers of fabric and lay it on the pyre, wrapped only in a tight, gauzy white shroud. The fire is started with bundles of dry grass and the flames build quickly. Huge billows of smoke are illuminated by one large floodlight on top of the ghat. The smells of the river, cow dung, stale water and mud and the smoke from wood, fabric and flesh penetrate me.

This business is carried out twenty four hours a day, every day. It’s quite the enterprise, with a small market at the top of the ghat for purchasing the gold fabric, for paying the burning fee, purchasing the wood for burning and sandalwood powder that’s thrown in the fire, and a barber for the male members of the family to have their faces and heads shaved. The fire builders never stop working. Carrying and stacking large bundles of wood, tending to the fires, making sure the bodies are properly consumed, their labor both sacred and mundane. After about three hours the fire dies to a point where it can be dowsed with water. The ashes are then put into the river.

I spent about three hours at the burning ghats that night. I had a lot of apprehension about watching the ritual burning. I was afraid that it would be more difficult because of my own father’s cremation. I was surprised to find it quite peaceful. There seemed to be a connection that the families had to the process that perhaps I did not. So, that night I got to participate in some small way with freeing a soul. It’s amazing to think that this has been going on for thousands of years. I sat there on the concrete steps, feeling the warm air, smelling the smells, feeling so completely out of time and out of place and at the same time absolutely accepted. I was held in this ancient moment of transcendence where families send their loved one’s bodies back to the five elements of space, water, fire, wind and earth, and their spirits to God. Someone once said that human knowledge of our own death causes us to die just a little every day. We’re not long on this quick spin around the mortal coil and sitting watching the fires helped me just a little to let go of my own fear of dying.

The entire day was filled with the sacred and the profane, often in the same breath. I felt quite privileged to be on those ghats, at that river and to be alive.

I flew back to Delhi the next day, my third entrance to that blissful chaos. Today I left India and flew to Katmandu. Nepal is similar to India in some ways, but there is a bit more space here. Thinner air, more room, less garbage, no cow shit, horrible air pollution, and many more smiles. The Nepalese seem at first glance to be happier, lighter than their Indian neighbors. Perhaps Buddhism has cast a layer of calm over this Shangri-La. And there is a buzz here that is no doubt aided by the trekking industry. I’m not physically prepared for a serious trek through the Himalayas, but I bought a book and tomorrow I’ll investigate some low impact hikes that will get me closer to the mountains. Everest base camp will have to wait for another trip, but I do want to go smell that crisp mountain air.

I’ve decided to take a break from this blog. I have an obsessive-compulsive mind and I have noticed myself “spectatoring”, observing my experience as I’m in it and then narrating it in my head in preparation for writing it here. That’s not working for me and I want to drop down into a more immediate experience. This has been fun, but the only way I can see right now to dive deeper into this journey is to stop writing about it. I’m hoping I can find a way to be really present and still post from time to time, but right now I need to give it a rest.

Thanks for reading.



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  1. Michele permalink

    I love reading your tales and I totally understand the mind the composes for the email, journal, blog, phone call, fireside chat, etc. I’ve been along with you this far on your journey and hope you post again when it feels right. I love you!

  2. Hey, This was a brilliant piece. I can understand when you say that you want to have a more immediate experienceGaurav

  3. Katie Burke permalink

    Thanks for bringing us with you on your journey thus far. I hope that you will continue to write when you return to San Francisco. You have a real gift. Have a wonderful time on the rest of your travels. I’ll have your blog hooked up to my Bloglines, so that I can catch your next post automatically, in the event that you do return to Whiskey Rebellion.
    You are missed here!

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