Wednesday, June 15, 2011

India Caprice, Part 8

The next morning (day 11), we caught a train to Jhansi.  A couple of goats browsed the railroad tracks as we waited for the train. From Jansi, we took a bus to the town of Khajuraho, center of the Chanadela Dynasty; basically, the whole day was spent in transit. 

On day 12, we took the bus to the Chandelas temples and had a leisurely time viewing extraordinary carvings in high relief--erotic and otherwise--that line the temple walls both inside and out. The eastern temple complex was huge, consisting of several temples, including one to the sun and a couple to Shiva and one, I believe, to Parvati.  There were other deities whose names I don’t recall.  The weather was quite fine, the air was good, a perfect day for photos.  The western temple complex was smaller and dedicated to the Jain religion. The founder of the Jains is generally depicted stark naked, and Jain holy men apparently still wander the streets wearing no clothing, although those I saw on this trip were all wearing at least a modicum of clothing, but masks sometimes covered their faces.
One of the temples at Chandelas

Wall carvings in a Chandelas temple
That afternoon, we flew to Varanasi (Benares).  Somehow, this holy city seemed dirtier and more crowded than any of the others we had seen thus far, although traffic was admittedly worse in Delhi.  

Streets of Varanasi

We took a rickshaw ride from the hotel down to the water of the “sacred Mother Ganga” (Ganges River) where we descended steep steps down the “ghats” (docks) to the water and boarded a clap-trap wooden boat manned by a boat-master and two young rowers.  Our local guide directed the operation and we sat and watched and took photos.We went up the river to where the bodies were burning (the cremation ghats) and watched that operation for 15 – 20 minutes.  For a Hindu, it is highly desirable to be cremated at Varanasi; one can achieve instant Moksha – release from the cycle of death and rebirth – by being burned there.  People bring their dead from miles around and pay big bucks for the sandalwood logs used in a traditional cremation.  The process can only be performed by the “doms” – untouchables charged with the task of burning the dead.  (The head “dom” is a very wealthy man.)  When the flesh is burnt, what is left of the bones, particularly the skull, is smashed with bamboo rods, then the fire is doused (by the mourners) with Ganges water and any ribs or pelvis remaining are dumped into the river.  One would expect the river to be thoroughly contaminated by all that biological material, but apparently the water is very alkaline and nothing grows in it.  Does the river flow through limestone upstream?  Or is the potassium and sodium hydroxide left from the ashes responsible for the alkalinity?

Burning ghats - view of the fires from a boat

Watching the burning was an awesome and sobering sight.  Many fires (the guide said 12) were blazing at any given time.  Enshrouded bodies lay on the steps awaiting their turn for a fire.  Except for the crackling of the fire and occasional weeping, everything was silent.  The crowds on the steps of the ghats were silent, watchers in the boats were silent, the Ganges itself flowed silently.  When we turned from the burning ghats and rowed back downstream, we each received a small candle in a leaf boat.  The candles were lit and we were to pray or wish over our candles and then drop them in the Ganges.  I believe I prayed for world peace and for the well-being of my children.  Amazingly, none of the candles fizzled out. 
The boat was then rowed toward the “Praying Ghat” where the evening ritual of putting the River to sleep was about to begin.  This operation had a carnival atmosphere about it.  Several priests were lined up at tables beneath many umbrellas lit with multicolored line-lights - rather like Christmas tree lights.  Each priest had cones of tiered lights, like those I saw at the wedding the first night in Delhi.  These he held and waved around with his arms, more or less in synchrony with those of his fellow priests.  Drums droned the “lub-dub” heartbeat rhythm that seems to be favored in Indian ritual drumming.  I find it disturbing--even vaguely threatening when I hear it--as if someone or something is trying to entrain my heartbeat, as in an Edgar Allen Poe short story.  I had the same reaction that first night in Delhi when there was a wedding procession outside our hotel. 

Praying ghats. Light, ritual and flim-flam

The prayer ritual seemed rather silly – the boring and repetitive drums, the priests doing some sort of choreographed hand movements with the lights.  I believe there were eight of them, lined up under eight umbrellas, all doing more or less the same rituals.  There was also another group of priests on the other side of the Prayer Ghat with somewhat different umbrellas.  I couldn’t see what they were doing very well, but I assume it was a similar ritual.  The local guide suggested that the two groups of priests were “competing with each other.”
On the way back to the bus (which had to park a long way from the ghats), we again took rickshaws.  As I was getting into a rickshaw, I stepped into a pile of very moist cow dung and slipped, but managed to stay upright by taking hold of the edge of the rickshaw, by my companion (Connie) grabbing my elbow, and by my own good basic balancing instincts.  But as I slipped, an image flashed through my mind’s eye:  I was down on my knees and arms, smeared from hand to toe with cow poop.  This image, however fantastical, will remain one of my most intense memories of India.



  1. Aren't cows sacred? Wouldn't that extend to their poop? You might have been "baptized" in to something unknown to you. Good story.

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