Whilst on their tour of India, our group explored the ghats of Varanasi. In geographical terms, a ghat is a mountain pass. Today’s newsletter is about the ghat which is a broad flight of steps that is situated on a riverbank in India, which provides access to the water – for bathing, for religious ceremonies and also for boat landings. Structurally, they provide river access, retain soil, stabilize and define the riverbanks, guide water flow, and protect settlements from flooding. Built within the river landscape, the ghats also strengthen the enduring connection between nature, culture, people, and water.
The ghats date back to the 14th century but most were rebuilt, along with Varanasi, in the 18th century by Maratha rulers. They are either privately owned or, having a special significance in Hindu mythology, are used for bathing and Hindu religious rituals. Varanasi has 88 ghats, most of which are bathing and “puja ceremonial” ghats. Only two ghats, Manikarnika and Harishchandra, are used exclusively as cremation sites.
Puja, also spelled pooja or poojah, is a Hindu worship ritual, ranging from brief daily rites in the home to elaborate temple rituals. The word puja is derived from the Dravidian pu (“flower”). In its simplest form, puja is the loving offering of light, flowers, water or food to the divine. Although the puja is not mandatory in Hinduism, it may be a routine daily affair, a periodic ritual for some, and rare for other Hindus. In some temples, various pujas may be performed daily at various times of the day; in other temples, they may be occasional. It can be used to honour or celebrate special guests, or their memories after they die. It can be used to mark important life events such as the birth of a baby. Puja is performed for an incredibly wide variety of reasons. Tying in with one of our previous articles, marigolds are often the flower of choice for puja, and as mentioned above, the ghats are one of the places these rituals take place.
A cremation ghat is one where the Hindus cremate their dead. Their attitude to death is not one of loss, but more about the ‘shedding’ of a worn-out body. As such, the atmosphere at the cremation ghat is generally not one of sorrow, and the mourners apparently laugh, chat and play cards as the funeral preparations are carried out. The Varanasi cremation ghats are hives of activity. Families weave between the piles of wood gathered for burning bodies, goats amble around the funeral parties, and spectators and tourists mill around, observing the ceremonies.
Hindus believe the banks of the Ganges next to the holy city of Varanasi to be the most sacred place on earth to die, and up to 300 people are cremated at this sacred site every day to liberate their souls to find nirvana and be reborn. It is believed anyone who dies in Varanasi achieves moksha (the liberation of the immortal soul from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth). When the body is placed on the pyre, a family member (usually the eldest son or closest male relative) starts the cremation by lighting a bunch of straw from the Main Fire, a flame that is said to have been burning for more than 3000 years. The burning straw is then used to light the funeral pyre. The body burns, as an offering to the god of fire, Agni. Thereafter, the person’s soul will no longer be born again into this world. The ashes are then collected and scattered in the Ganges. Revered in the Hindu religion, the Manikarnika Ghat is one of the oldest ghats in Varanasi – it is even mentioned in a Gupta inscription of 5th century.
Another interesting aspect of these funerals is that whilst wealthier families may choose to use the much more expensive sandalwood instead of the cheaper mango wood, the poor may just use cow dung, or even simply throw the body directly into the river.
Only a certain subcaste of the Untouchables – known as the Doms – are allowed to come into contact with dead bodies. The Doms belong to the lowest ranks of the “Dalits”, who are themselves at the bottom of the caste system. Their role is to protect the ever-burning flame (believed to have been created by Lord Shiva) and to provide the cremation packages, which include the purchasing of essential wood that is needed to burn the bodies, and assistance during the rituals. The Doms have created a small community living by Varanasi’s burning ghats, where cremation fires burn day and night.
Most of these concepts are foreign to us as tourists to this part of the world, but surely that is why we travel (whether in real life or as an armchair traveller) – to learn and experience different cultures… What a trip!
Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team