I hear how the fire consumes the wood, the typical sparks of a pine or a carob in a bonfire. Here the smoke, inevitable sign of a barbecue, goes away slower, thicker. And a pop comes off from the little flames symphony, a noise I do not understand until I see where I am.
Now the fire is gone. Avinash stares at me, he tests me. He forgets his smile, the one he had just two minutes ago, and he fixes those black eyes on me to see how far my interest is. I realize that and get serious; I show him my respect for his culture and religion. And I wonder if false respect is respect. Anyway, my face betrays me, I’m really scared and I cannot hide it. I don´t even want it. That´s the way I feel it and that´s the way I want to experience it, with fear, with great fear. We came to Varanasi to try to understand what the Ganges River means for the Hindu religion, India’s largest religion and the most venerated by people. And now we are here, facing the world’s holiest river, where nearly ninety bodies are burned every day to get purified, to get free. Here, where the water receives the ashes of all those bodies, here where the green color blends in with the black, here we are with Joaquin, in silence, looking each other and listening to Avinash, who explains us where to get into the Ganges.
Again I hear the pop. A trachea breaks and the lying head dislodges. I look to one side, then to the other, seeking for someone to be with me in this rite. Cannot find him, he is not here. I’m sitting in a small boat six meters from the river bank. In front of me, the most impressive crematorium in the world and here I am, quite, silent, watching how bodies and more bodies are burned.
Fire is doing its job; gradually consuming meat, hair, feet painted nails. The family sings and celebrates death around that lying body. Distributed in a circle they see the body burn, disappear, and leave behind the smoke. One leads the ceremony while the others raise hymns, which I’m far from understanding. I look and I’m sorry, but I do not understand. There are things that are known from theory, others can only be experienced. Hinduism in India is one of those things. It is experienced beyond any analysis or study. Like this, to watch burning bodies in Varanasi, where three or four meters from that round of relatives there is a mountain of woods, stacked, forming a huge bonfire. Besides it another body waits for its turn.
It is a sunny day. I walk with Avinash and I confess him my fears. I ask him to tell me the consequences to bathe in the Ganges, where for more than 3000 years not only bodies are thrown, but also rubbish, leftover food, all kinds of excrements, all kinds of shit. Avinash looks at me sad and he replies: “My son and I take a bath every day, this is our river, and this is our mother, mother Ganga. Here I bathed with my dad when I was a kid. If you want to get into it you have to be convinced, you have to feel it. When I was younger, he laughs, I used to cross it from coast to coast. It took me about 40 minutes; of course I was in much better shape. Today, I cannot do it, showing up a cigarette. Anyway, if you are not convinced don´t get into it, probably you will not have a good experience.”
I keep silent; I choose to keep quiet although I have nothing to say. Actually, silence silences me. Luckily Joaquin breaks it after about five or six seconds saying he is convinced. Within minutes we reach the Gat (the Gats are the strategic points which are used to divide the bank of the river in stops). Avinash explains the respectful prayers to be said before entering the river. Behind him a swastika shines, the symbol which represents Hinduism for more than 3000 years. Joaquin listens attentively while I prepare the camera. He has no doubt; he takes off his shirt, pants and sits on the cement stairs that run into the river. He bows his head, repeats the words of respect to Ganga and enters it. I see him and decide to imitate him.
I start to take off my clothes and Avinash says, “If you go into it you must leave your ego aside.” I walk down the stairs a little scared and on the last step I slip, as few times in all my life. I did not kill myself by chance, thanks to Ganga or Shiva, who knows. I stand up quickly and look to Avinash apologizing. He repeats that I should leave my ego aside. I sit down, I say the words of respect to the river and I submit myself to the experience. Water covers me completely.
This is the way of life in India, this is its culture. More than 3000 years burning their corpses and scattering their ashes in the Ganges. In the crematoria, songs set the rhythm of ceremonies. Now they are increasingly deafening. I wonder what the body covered with cloths lying there for more than thirty minutes should be saying to himself, in line to be burned.
I wonder if he says something, if his soul thinks in words. I imagine he is enjoying his last moments and tries to breathe hard, but fails. One of his relatives takes a torch and unhesitatingly lit the bonfire. Flames rise, wrap the body and begin to fill the cavities with white smoke, intoxicating it. The others, meanwhile, keep singing, almost shouting, and I look at them and try to find if they are crying. But I see no tears. Drums begin to sound coming from the top of the crematorium. Many people standing up; all are men talking like in a park. There is a lot of smoke, a lot, and there are more than twenty bodies covered with colorful linens and flowers waiting their turn. There are dark gray steps of about two feet, cold and dirty.
There’s a guy, a sort of executioner rummaging through the fires and after long hours grabs the only thing that remains of the human body after cremation. It´s the coccyx, the only bone that doesn´t burn at these temperatures. He grabs it with two wooden sticks and walks to where we are; watching everything from a boat with other tourists. He throws it; drops splash our backs and the Turkish, an Argentinian we met in Varanasi, says that a drop went into one of his eyes. He asks if that is enough to be purified or if he is going to lose his sight. We laugh, he relaxes the environment, but not even more than nine or ten seconds have passed, that we are again looking stunned, stupefied with what we see. And then I see a cow lying down in front of me also watching everything but not surprised as us. There are two dogs playing and running around the bodies. Once in a while they fall in the dark water or swim among ashes and rubbish, looking for a piece of meat that can be rescued.
We have been more than five minutes stuck in the river. Joaquin tells me that the Hindus feel has to be experimented with the body, not with our heads, because it would be impossible on the other way. I agree but dithering I say what would it happen if we find a body floating on the waters or if we step on a skull. He doesn´t answer, but after a few minutes we leave the river. Avinash pats us, he looks happy. And a dog, perhaps the same dog that was digging in the crematorium, gets closer to my legs. He smells a second or two and then, disappointed, goes in search of another body.
Texto: Ignacio Antelo
Video: Expreso a Oriente