I will never forget the smell of a burning dead body. You could almost see the ashes floating up from the pit as you were inhaling the murky heavy air. There wasn’t just one either, there were about 8 fire pits all going at once. This, the edge of the Ganges river in Old Varanasi, India.
It’s an old town for sure; the whole thing is like a huge castle town with narrow streets and high buildings. It’s all stone – the buildings and floor. It’s like a maze trying to find your way around and you have to share the narrow pathways with angry cows and motorbikes coming at you at the same time. The ground is covered in crushed marigold flowers, unknown liquids, and cow dung. It’s beautifully surreal.
At the edge of the ancient city flows the Ganges river where dead bodies are brought from all over India to be cremated and gifted to the Gods. As you get nearer to the ceremony there is this thick smell that suffocates your entire body as you know you’re not smelling burning wool but burning human bones and hair. I cover my mouth and nose with my jumper and walk nearer, passing signs requesting ‘no photography’. The sign is more powerful than others as you feel like it’s the spirits asking you to refrain, rather than some business owner who wants to prohibit you making a profit. Not a single camera or phone in sight. We get closer and are asked if we want to be taken to a secret spot at the top of one of the castle-esque buildings. Of course we are expecting to a pay a fee even though the guy insists we won’t, but we follow him anyway. Sure enough at the top of the narrow staircases was a view that can only be described as heavenly; as if looking from the heavens. It was dark, with amber lighting coming from human fire pits and the orange and purple sun set behind them.
My friend and I just stand there, looking out at the view, trying to see if we can decipher body parts in the fires. We think we saw a small chest frame in one, and a skull in the another. Then we see a body being carried from out from the building beneath us, a small body wrapped in bright pink/purple silk cloth. A modern day glamorous mummy held in the air on a stretcher by four or so other men. Her fate – burned and set down the river to be freed from this world and onto the next.
I cry in silence. The chap who took us up there left without asking for a tip. We leave in silence.