The distance from Hampi to the Nepalese border is 2,200 kilometers, approximately the distance from Phoenix to Seattle. Our plan was to drive to Nepal for the short trekking season, and then return to India later to explore the north.
“It’s only twenty-two hundred kilometers,” I reassuringly reported to Sheena. “We’ll be yodeling in the Himalayas in three days, tops.” Stupid, stupid, stupid. If we could see into the future we would still have Lennon, the Pontia Aztec would never have seen the light of day, and I would have retained the will to live. But we can’t, and so we began the drive across India, blindly walking straight into the field of rakes.
We left Hampi on roads having a medium number of potholes, which
was annoying, and which were crisscrossed by a greater than average number of
speed bumps, which was also annoying. For half of the day we pushed the limits
of the road, which is to say that we crawled along at a three-legged turtle’s pace.
“Says here we’ll reach National Highway 7 by around lunchtime,” I said,
swiping our GPS with my finger. Sheena shot me a look as if to say, you’d better
hope so, you sonofabitch, or you’ve cuddled your last cuddle. By lunchtime we reached
National Highway 7, just as expertly predicted, whereupon we stopped at a
humble roadside shack for lunch and were shocked when an Austrian-registered
overlanding truck pulled up next to us carrying none other than our soon-to-be
road tripping shoulders-to-cry-on, Regina and David—the first and only other
foreign drivers we’d met in India. Suckers.
After lunch we parted ways, Nacho being überly faster than David and
Regina’s truck on open highways, and we hoped to meet again. Several minutes
later everything went to hell, a milestone marked by National Highway 7
changing from a four lane proper highway into a two lane wasteland matched
only in dishevelment by the streets of Hiroshima circa 1945. As we sailed off of
the end of the pavement and into the rubble field, Nacho’s oil pan smashed
against the edge of a bomb crater. I pulled over to check that the oil pan hadn’t
split—it hadn’t—and we continued on our way, albeit at a snail’s pace, crawling
all over both lanes to reduce the impact of falling into the holes formerly known
as road. David and Regina soon passed us.
As the hours ticked by, my wits began to falter. The highway was a
parade of overloaded trucks with inventive paint jobs which, every few
kilometers, piled up behind and then overtook their comrades who had sustained
broken axles or had rolled over—those poor impatient souls who drove too fast
through the crater field. The driving conditions deteriorated throughout the day,
and the scant driving skills possessed by the nation’s motorists evaporated
altogether. Cars drove on the wrong side of the road, even when a center divider
was present, and trucks and motorcycles entered the roadway without signaling
or even looking first, causing me to repeatedly slam on the brakes and think very
On a particularly straight and excessively potholed section of road on
which we crept along at around ten kilometers-per-hour, we happened upon a
motorcycle cop heading in our direction. He passed us, and upon seeing our
white faces, his pupils turned to dollar signs. He flipped around, rode up next to
Sheena’s window, and attempted not to fall over at such a low rate of speed. He
pointed to the roadside, prompting me to let out a stifled laugh—not a funny
laugh, but a laugh that let anyone within earshot know that this road had taken
away my desire to live, and with it any care of what would happen to me if I lost
control and hacked up an Indian motorcycle cop with my Bear Grylls edition
“Well hello good officer, it’s a wonderfully wonderful day out here on
your amazing National Highway 7, now don’t you agree?” A fluent English
speaker would match this to my tone and realize that I was a man with no fear, a
desperate man. A suicide bomber. He didn’t speak English, save for a few choice
“Why yes of course I have a license. And good for you for checking. Is
there anything else I can do for you?”
“Now, as you’ll recall, I just explained to you that I indeed have a license.
If you think I’m going to give it to you, well then you’re terribly mistaken.”
“She license,” he said, pointing to Sheena.
“This pretty little lady here is my passenger. And as you’re well aware,
passengers aren’t required to have licenses. Isn’t that about right?” This was easy
enough, but I wanted so badly to punch this man in his big, dumb, mustachioed
“She license. She license!” He was clearly getting mad.
“Me driver…she passenger…see? Me drive. She sit there and read book.
No need license for read book. Understandy?”
“One thousand Rupee,” he demanded.
“Excuse me? Why?”
“One thousand Rupee!”
“I don’t think so. Leave us alone.” And at that he gave up and walked
back to his bike without another word. Corruption. It might explain how central
India’s primary north-south corridor had been allowed to fall to ruin.
As evening neared and I dangled at the end of my desperate rope, having
completed only three hundred kilometers of slow and painful crawling, we saw a
group of Indian men staring at something on the edge of the road much in the
same way that they usually gathered around and stared at us. As we passed we
saw a car with its hood smashed in and a crumpled motorcycle in the road, its
rider hunched over but alive, sitting in a pool of blood. Nobody did anything; the
spectators just stood and stared.
Distracted by the scene we launched into another crater, smashing our oil
pan for the umpteenth time. As darkness fell we found a petrol station, pulled
into a corner, and cried ourselves to sleep.
Early morning coffee and oatmeal prepared us for another twelve hours
of battle. I tied up our full trash bag and walked to the petrol station attendant to
see where I might throw it away, at which he motioned with his thumb to toss it
over the wall. I said I’d rather not, but he enthusiastically encouraged me to pitch
it over the wall; it’s the Indian System, he assured me. Instead I secured the bag
to the front bumper and we departed into the post-apocalyptic mine field known
as National Highway 7.
Around lunchtime, while passing through a central Indian forest, we
smashed our oil pan for the bazillionth time while abruptly dropping into a
coffin-sized hole in the road, so I again pulled over to inspect it for splits. The
formerly perfect rectangular prism had by now become a piece of mutant
cauliflower, and had long since developed a leak around the crushed-in oil drain
plug. I checked the oil level; a half-quart low. I topped it up, got back in the van,
and turned the key. The engine refused to start.
Reer reer reer…reer reer reer…reer reer reer…
“Oh my!” Sheena said under her breath. I don’t usually swear, so she
knew this must be serious. And it was, after all, since this was a new engine for
which I had virtually no spare parts, no experience, and no shop manual. I
thought about it a little more.
“Fork, FORK!” I said, smacking the dashboard with my hand. Could I
have added too much oil? Could the air filter be plugged from the endless
kilometers of this dirt road incomprehensibly called a highway? I got out,
crawled under the van, and readied myself to empty a half-quart of oil out of the
drain plug. I slowly unscrewed it, and before I knew it hot oil was pouring all
over my hands and I couldn’t stop it.
“What the FORK!” I scream-whispered as my delicate hand skin began
to melt. Stupid, stupid, stupid! I only had one quart of oil left with which to
replenish this Exxon-Valdez! Just when all hope seemed lost I fumbled the plug
back in, stopping the flow of molten lava. Soon enough, as always happens in
India, a group of men emerged from the woodwork and formed a tight huddle
around me as I wiped my scorched hands on an old tee shirt, removed the air
filter, and went to work removing the thick mud from its creases.
While I worked, Sheena tidied up the house under the supervision of a
deranged Indian man who continually stared at her with mean creeper eyes. She
collected several empty plastic bottles and tucked them into the trash bag on the
front bumper, an act which enraged the creepy man. He disgustedly followed
her, grabbed the plastic bottles out of the trash, and flung them into the trees, and
then stared at her like a deranged and infuriated maniac. Who does this woman
think she is, coming into our country and exercising environmental
Just as I put the finishing touches on the air filter, who should arrive but
David and Regina. They had stopped in Hyderabad to have their motorcycle rack
welded after a legally-blind Indian driver had driven full-speed into them while
they sat in a turn lane. They weren’t convinced that the welder knew what he was
doing, so they carried on. I told them we’d catch up in the evening, and saw them
on their way. As they left, Sheena ran over and informed me that we urgently
had to leave, right this second, just throw your tools into the car and get us the
hell out of here now! The creepy littering man was getting belligerent, and in her
assessment we were now in a state of grave danger.
I threw everything inside, rubbed the Iranian prayer beads that hung from
our rearview mirror, and turned the key. Salvation! Nacho roared to life and we
sped away, at roughly ten kilometers-per-hour, from the threatening gaze of the
backwoods Indian creeper, undoubtedly mere seconds before he would have
tried something foolish and caused me to turn my torque wrench into a weapon.
We soon stopped at another petrol station for a fill-up. I carried our trash
bag over to the attendant and was again encouraged to throw it over the wall,
which both enraged and flabbergasted me. They live in piles of garbage, and yet they still
encourage littering. I returned to Nacho, secured the garbage to the front bumper,
and slammed the door.
“Am I out of my forking mind for wanting to responsibly dispose of this
garbage?!” Sheena nervously twisted and pulled out a little bit of her hair, I
seethed with rage, and we drove back toward the minefield, slamming our oil
pan on a concrete ledge as we pulled back onto India’s National Highway 7.
Every morning of our trans-India drive started out the same; we awoke
from fitful sleep by the sound of our talking alarm clock to the suffocating
weight of reality pressing down on our chests. It was a terrible feeling, as if we
had accidentally burned down the house with the entire family inside. We were
damned to this fate, and there was nothing we could do to change it. After
oatmeal and coffee we would tidy Nacho’s insides and then pull away from our
petrol station camp spot to rejoin the decaying ruins of National Highway 7.
From our captains’ chairs we would catch the “golden hour” in full effect
—that is, the window of time in the morning when the sun casts its golden rays
upon the dozens of Indians publicly shitting on the highway, an act they carried
out as candidly as they brushed their teeth with frayed sticks, stared at
foreigners, or tossed giant bags of garbage over walls. Hugging their legs they
watched cars go by while decorating the road with hundreds of runny little piles
of poo. Sometimes they congregated in small groups to converse while
communally crapping and watching us smash our oil pan on dilapidated chunks
On the third day, while approaching a small village on a rare but short
stretch of pavement, we were captured on a police camera—certainly the only
police camera in India—traveling at an excessively fast forty-eight kilometers-
per-hour in a forty zone. That’s five miles per hour over the speed limit, for the
metrically challenged. I was stopped, given an official ticket, and fined eight
dollars for speeding on the only section of National Highway 7 where it is
actually possible to speed. It was the first speeding ticket I had ever received in
my life, which was ironic since I had never driven so many consecutive hours
under the speed limit in my life. Just as we prepared to leave, a boy on a scooter
put in a feeble attempt to escape after being told to stop. This enraged the
officer, who took chase on foot. When the officer finally caught the assailant he
very professionally punched him in the head.
In the evening we coincidentally caught up with David and Regina at a
dirty roadside thatched hut where truckers sat on cots watching an absurdly loud
television. We huddled on a cot and I leaned back against a wooden post, placing
my head squarely in the middle of a gigantic spider lair tended by at least one,
and probably more, giant squishy-butted arachnids. My flailing arms
uncontrollably swiped the sticky spider net from my head and I looked up to see
thousands—no, hundreds of thousands—of gargantuan plump spiders infesting
the restaurant’s thatched roof, only a couple of feet overhead. This prompted us
to move outside into the dirt parking area to eat our gruel.
David and Regina had become similarly disheveled and overwhelmed by
the roads and the mindlessness of the people who used them, and had likewise
been driven to the use of profanity to express their thoughts.
“They call this a forking highway? This is India’s forking National
Highway forking system?! And did you see the dead motorcyclist?” We said that
we hadn’t. “A couple of kilometers back, he was hit by a car and was just lying
there dead in the middle of the road with a crowd of men staring at him.”
The next morning, against all conceivable odds, the road conditions
worsened. What was once a bomb-blasted crater field had been reduced to a dirt
track dotted with plateaus of sharp protruding tarmac, and at last into several
bottomless ruts in the earth filled with deep, sludgy mud and rocks.
Within a couple of hours we reached a solid line of unmoving trucks. Our
reconnaissance man, David, snapped into action and discovered that a six-foot-
deep pit in the road had filled up with sludge after the previous night’s rain, and
had become an impassible, chest-deep pool. The trucks had no choice but to wait
for it to dry out—yes, to wait for a swimming pool of mud to evaporate—before
they could pass. Just a common nuisance, much like the ones faced daily on the
primary national highways of the world’s other leading economic superpowers.
I was just about to explain to Sheena how India could go fork itself,
when I noticed David talking to a motorcycle rider. The rider offered to show us
an alternate route, an offer that seemed dubious at best, but we had no other
choice, so we followed him onto a seldom-used path leading into a rice paddy.
The rider wound us through a maze of mud paths for thirty minutes into
the countryside and away from the highway. Finally he stopped, turned off his
motorcycle, and sauntered over to David’s window wearing a face that said,
“Now you’re really forked.” It was swindling time. What the rider hadn’t
accounted for was the fact that we were happy to be swindled for his services,
and he almost didn’t know what to do with himself when David agreed to his
first attempt at extortion of 200 Rupees ($3.25). We paid up and continued down
the diminishing mud path, through several tiny villages whose residents had
clearly never seen a modern motorcar, let alone milky-colored faces, and finally
into a section that seemed impassible for its mud and overhanging electrical
wires. Knowing that this was the only thing standing between us and freedom,
we put on our Navy Seals face paint and rally hats, and a half hour later we
reemerged on National Highway 7 to a flood of mixed emotions.
When evening rolled around, David and Regina called in early while we
carried on into the night. We stopped and filled our gas tank to an audience of
staring men, as usual, and minutes later as we bumped along the road one of
them gave chase on his motorcycle in a death-defying pursuit next to my
window for a good fifteen minutes trying to get me to stop so we could be
Facebook friends. He gave up and we stopped to camp at a nasty petrol station at
a crossroads of two nearly impassible rocky roads, one of which was National
The only place serving food was a dark mosquito-infested cinderblock
hut with stained walls and no electricity, so we accepted our fate of dengue fever
and Delhi belly, and reluctantly ordered. When it was time to pay up, a boy
brought us the bill, but when we tried to pay, the hut’s owner decided that our
white faces gave us a cheatability factor of 4.0, and the price was quadrupled.
After a prolonged argument we paid his ridiculous price and tried to leave, but
not before the socially retarded bastard requested that we pose with him for a
Facebook photo. Later on while we slept, someone stole our bamboo mat, which
had been half-eaten by a sacred cow at Santhanam’s temple. Un-forking-real.
David and Regina passed us early on day four. It looked like Regina was
crying in the passenger seat, but I’m quite sure she was simply having a nervous
breakdown just like Sheena. A few hours later we were startled to see them
bouncing back toward us over the rubble in the opposite direction. When they
arrived, David rolled down his window. He was looking pretty rough.
“We came back to tell you that you probably won’t make it.”
“I will fight you, David. You can’t make me go back.” The thought of
going back was more than my frail mind could handle; the closest detour was a
full day in the opposite direction, and was a secondary road , whatever the hell that
meant. I whimpered softly. This drive had killed my joy. I just wanted to go
home. I wanted to sit in a cubicle, anonymously adding covers to TPS reports,
for nine hours per day from there on out. Just minutes earlier I had been
daydreaming about the thrill of loading Nacho onto a truck and sending him to
the nearest port to get the hell out of there. I wanted to go to Afghanistan to be
captured by al-Qaeda. Anything but this. And now David was standing there
telling me to go back. “You can’t make me!” My voice cracked.
“Well you can try, but we just tried it and almost didn’t make it ourselves.
The road just turns into a series of deep mud lakes.” It was true that they had a
4×4 with enough clearance to drive over Nacho without high centering. But I
was a desperate man.
“Turn that thing around. We’re going for a swim.”
The next two hours went by in a blur of desperate, adrenaline-fueled
driving maneuvers through deep mud lakes, trenches, and free-falls into Nacho-
sized craters. When things looked hopeless, I would think about being stuck in
India and then let my survival response take over. We emerged through the
whole 4×4 obstacle course by the skin of our teeth, pushing our powerful new
engine to its limit and reshaping the road’s high center with our oil pan.
With a quarter of the drive to Nepal still in front of us, it was time for a
pit stop. When we arrived in Varanasi, we had become mental basketcases. My
conversation skills had long since left me and had been replaced by Tourettic
outbursts of profanity. Sheena’s eyebrow-twitching had gotten out of control and
she spent most of her time staring at her feet, whimpering. I scraped Nacho’s side
on a rickety old bus as we navigated into the city, but I didn’t even flinch. I was
The Mall Road, Varanasi
Having reached a state that can best be described as “loss of will to live,”
Varanasi presented itself as a much needed intermission point; a place to stretch
our legs, build back our endurance, and wash off the caked dirt plastered on our
skin. We had made tentative plans to try to reconnect with David and Regina at a
hotel in the city that they had picked out. We had lost contact with them early in
the day, but given the state of the roads and their truck’s higher clearance, we
were pretty sure they would beat us there.
We threaded our way into the city during peak rush hour and soon
realized that Varanasi wasn’t going to let us into its heart quite so easily. It
would have its pound of flesh. For the next two hours we went to battle with a
few thousand other cars, taxis, rickshaws, and bicycles on a pitch dark and dusty
street. Much of the road was flooded in a mysterious sludgy liquid, and all
around us, despite the standstill traffic, a symphony of horns screamed like a
million locusts in the night.
I rolled up my window and turned up the radio. Time crept slowly by and
we crawled through the city at a glacial pace. At some point Brad looked in his
rearview mirror and noticed a familiar vehicle. “You’ve got to be kidding me,”
he said. “David and Regina are right behind us. I guess they had a long day,
How on earth we ended up next to them on some random Varanasi
surface street in a city of 1.1 million people was beyond me, but I found comfort
in knowing there were two other crazy people undergoing the same punishment
as we were. Misery does love company.
It turned out they had indeed arrived hours before us but their GPS had
led them on a wild goose chase through the city, placing them squarely back
where they had begun hours earlier.
“We’ve been driving around the city for two hours looking for this
Together we slowly crept toward our destination. The hotel that we
fought so desperately to find turned out to be a failure. The hotel tried to charge
us the price of a rather costly room, even by Western standards, just to park in
their parking lot. Regina and Brad put on their problem-solving hats and set off
on foot down the street in search of a new location. David and I watched the
vans, and as idle foreigners, we became a captive audience to a rickshaw driver
who repeatedly listed the benefits of using him as our private Varanasi rickshaw
“I am the fastest rickshaw driver in Varanasi! I am so fast, like a race car
driver they call me.”
David laughed, “If you are like a race car driver then I don’t want to get
anywhere near your rickshaw! I’d rather walk.”
A half an hour later two silhouettes reappeared. Regina and Brad had
found a place: the Hotel de Paris , a former British colonial palace turned chic
“We weren’t even going to ask because the place looked too expensive,”
Regina exclaimed, “but they said it was no problem! We can camp out front in
their big garden, and just rent one room for all of us to share so we can take
Brad chimed in, “This hotel is something straight out of The Shining. No one
is even staying there,” he said, grinning.
“How are the rooms?” I asked.
“Oh just wait and see,” Brad replied, cryptically.
We drove through the hotel’s iron gates and circled around its beautifully
manicured lawn, stopping alongside the hotel’s veranda where we popped our
roof tent and opened the sliding door. Our hotel room was surprisingly spacious,
with the walls colored in a delicate layer of mold. The peeling carpet had been
transformed into a damp and moldy sponge, from decades of dirt and moisture
caked into its fibers. The last time this place had been cleaned was clearly by
British palace maids sometime in the 1940’s.
Regina ventured into the bathroom to test the shower. She promptly
stormed out of the room with a discouraged look on her face and returned with
the hotel manager. “The shower doesn’t even work!” she yelled in exasperation.
She turned on the water and it trickled out from the showerhead, one droplet at a
time. The manager wanted to provide us a proper service so he unscrewed
another showerhead from a neighboring room and replaced ours with a slightly
less calcified one. With no shower curtain and no drain in the floor one shower
was all it took to turn the entire bathroom into a sloshing pool of dirty water. But
a miracle happened that night, and in just a few hours the pool of water had
conveniently disappeared into the cracks of the hotel’s foundation.
None of us was too bothered by our circumstances. In fact, we all felt
like we were in paradise. We were clean, in a private gated area, and wouldn’t
have to return to National Highway 7 for at least two days. We gathered on the
veranda wall next to our mobile housing units, drank a few beers, and slept away
the nightmares from the previous days.
Varanasi shocked me, even after being in India for a month. It is one of
the oldest, longest continually inhabited cities in the world (and the oldest in
India), and one of Hinduism’s holiest pilgrimage sites. The city is especially
important in Hindu mythology as the place where Lord Shiva stood when time
began, and because of its location next to the Ganges, Hinduism’s holiest river.
Thousands of pilgrims arrive daily to bathe in the holy water of the Ganges, and
scores of people make the pilgrimage to Varanasi every day to die. To the non-
Hindu it may seem morose, but Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi and being
cremated by the flames of the eternal fire allows one’s soul to directly reach
nirvana, and finally break free of the eternal cycle of birth and death.
In the morning we flagged down a rickshaw and headed to the ghats ,
which are large concrete terraces along the riverbanks. It turned out that we had
arrived in Varanasi just a week after the waters had subsided from the city’s
worst flooding in ten years. The Ganges had risen for several days, and when it
settled back down, the city’s ghats were covered in a solid mountain of mud. The
steep steps that rose up the riverbank were vital to everyday life – a public place
where people bathed, washed their clothes, performed religious rituals, and
burned their dead. It was also a major tourist destination, so without the ghats ,
many people had cancelled their trips to Varanasi. The removal of the mud
deposits would be a monstrous task, so cleanup crews decided that the best
method of clearing the muck from the ghats was to spray it back into the water
with giant hoses.
Despite the cleanup, the ghats were teeming with locals washing their
clothes and pilgrims bathing in the water. At the top of the steps a group of
Hindus were getting their heads shaved – a symbol of surrender and humility,
and the first ritual performed when a pilgrim reaches their holy site.
We continued walking along the ghats . Boats full of pilgrims floated by,
cows and goats rested on the steps, and fishermen stood in their idle boats. A
naked boy herded his water buffalo out of the Ganges, and spiritual men walked
to and from their temples. We were captivated by one man who let his shawl
blow in the wind as he wandered down the waterfront. He didn’t speak a word
during our exchange, but a friendly local washing clothes nearby introduced us
The back alleys of Varanasi’s old town were just as interesting as the
ghats . They were packed with people, both foreign and Indian tourists. Women
scoured the sari shops looking at various prints and wandered in and out of
specialty stores to buy bangles and stick-on bindis for their foreheads. The alleys
were so narrow that small shops operated in cubbyholes cut in the walls. They
were so small that the shopkeepers couldn’t even stand inside. Instead, they
climbed inside their cubbyholes and sat there for the remainder of the day.
Eventually we made it out to the main street where bicycle rickshaw
drivers painstakingly pedaled their customers around. The heat and hard work of
transporting customers this way seemed especially hard on the elderly drivers.
The city was crazy, and its ceaseless activity made my head spin.
Most shocking to my western eyes was the spectacle of the Manikarnika
ghat , better known as the “Burning Ghat ,” where the deceased are publically
cremated. I felt a bit nervous about the whole thing, first because I had never
seen a burning body before, and second because the ritual seemed so incredibly
As we got closer to the burning ghat , the alley opened up into a
warehouse of six-foot-tall stacked mounds of wood, and from around a corner a
young child appeared to warn us, “No photo! No photo!” A man appeared and
led us up a set of winding stairs to a so-called hospice that provided a viewing
platform of the ghat below.
Beneath us the smoke billowed from ten smoldering funeral pyres,
stinging our eyes. Dead bodies wrapped in red cloth were sandwiched between
two layers of stacked wood and set ablaze. The fires were tended by Doms, the
lowest caste in Hindu society, and the only sub-caste permitted to prepare the
funeral pyre and dispose of the ashes and bone. The burning pyres were all at
different stages: some were just smoldering piles of ash, while others still bore
the human form. Several had been recently lit and the bodies were clearly visible
as the red cloth quickly burned away and the body became slowly consumed by
We stood captivated. A man poked a charred hunk of abdomen with a
stick to turn it over so that the fire could more thoroughly break it down. I turned
away again and again as the wafts of smoke stung my eyes.
A hospice worker stood beside me. “For the people below, the smoke
does not affect them. They’ve been doing this all their lives.”
This ritual was only for men, first because females are considered weak,
and may cry during the ceremony—which might prevent the soul from reaching
nirvana —and also because in the past women would throw themselves into the
fire to burn with their dead husbands.
The man next to me said that when a person dies, his or her body is
wrapped in fabric and covered in flowers, and then carried on a wooden stretcher
by the men of the family to the ghat . Once there, the body receives a holy bath in
the Ganges and is then carried to the pyres to await an open cremation spot.
Next, each family negotiates a price for the use of the eternal fire, which is said
to have been burning non-stop for the last 2,500 years. During times of flooding,
like the one that had just occurred, the fire is moved to higher ground. Once a
family has negotiated a fee for the fire, they must procure the wood. Different
types of wood cost different amounts, but a typical cost for the three hundred
kilograms of wood needed to burn a body is normally between $50 and $75.
Multiple cremations take place simultaneously at the Burning Ghat ,
twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. On average, three hundred bodies are
burned there every day. The flow of pilgrims coming to Varanasi to die is
We watched as a family below approached an open pyre. The men placed
their deceased family member over a pile of wood and then sprinkled the body in
syrup of natural oils. Hindu custom dictates that the eldest son or the husband of
the deceased is responsible for starting the fire, so from within the group an old
frail man moved forward; it must have been his wife on the pyre. The men
around him held him upright, and they passed a glowing torch, which his sons
helped to secure in his hands. His duty was expected now. As he reached
forward and touched the torch to the wood, his body became limp and he fell
backward. He was caught in an instant, and within seconds was lifted like a
feather off the ground and carried away.
Nearby a group of bald, white-robed men sat motionless on the top steps
of the ghats . They were waiting for their loved ones’ cremations to end, a process
that can take up to six hours, depending on the person’s size. In the end, all that
would remain would be ash and either a pelvic bone for a female, or the ribs for
a man – both of which are said to be too dense to burn completely to ash. From
there the family would sprinkle the remaining bones and ash in the Ganges
River, and the body would be washed away forever.
We stood motionless, still taking in what was going on down below. Men
stood waist deep in the river amid the film of ash that floated on the river’s
surface. They made a living here, panning through the ashes at the bottom of the
river in search of gold fillings and gems to sell. Alongside the men a group of
water buffalo bathed, not seeming to mind the film of ash that surrounded them.
They were just happy to be hidden from Varanasi’s unrelenting sun.
In the evening we met up with David and Regina for a boat ride on the
Ganges. Our rower had been born and bred in Varanasi, and therefore had a
plethora of knowledge about the city’s historical buildings and cultural ways. He
rowed us up and down the shore where we saw the city from a different
perspective. We revisited the Burning Ghats in the evening, and finally the
Dashashwamedh Ghat where a nightly Ganga Aarti was commencing.
At the Ganga Aarti , hundreds of Hindu devotees and a spattering of tourists
squeezed into a solid flotilla of boats bunched along the water’s edge. On the
steps of the ghat a few hundred more people encircled the ceremony that was
taking place. In the center, a row of saffron-robed men performed a
choreographed ritual, blowing their conch shells and waving their incense and
flaming brass lamps in the air.
After a long and exhausting day, the four of us squeezed our bodies into
the back of a rickshaw and headed back to the chic Hotel de Paris . On the way we
noticed a group of men marching down the potholed road carrying a wooden
stretcher. On top a body was wrapped in red fabric. Sweat rolled down their
foreheads but they didn’t seem to notice. They were focused and determined to
deliver their loved one to the Ganges.