Varanasi Old City

Varanasi exploded before my eyes. The narrow dense mazes of cobbled streets were filled with shops selling vibrant beads, bronze Bhuddas and bowls of curd. Half naked children scurried everywhere, screaming in delight of play. Sari after colourful sari pushed past me in patterned flumes of green, orange, blue and gold. The sound of their jingling anklets played the rhythm for the chants of a grieving procession. A body, draped in a sequinned shawl was being shuffled through on a stretcher. The procession was led by a group of Saddhus, dotted with red and dressed in orange. They swung decorative cast iron bells in time with their religious chants. They were heading towards the River Ganges for a ceremony- the burning of the body.

Not wanting to miss out, I follow them round the labyrinth of the old city, sidestepping cows and their pats, toward the banks. Indiaís holiest river is a dirty stinking green stretch of water. Laid so close
to its buildings that it floods them annually, and it curved in such a way that you could see it run a couple of miles down. Above the horizon line was a dusty haze that parched the colours of the landscape. However, the landscape was not still. People who lined the riverís edge were scrubbing clothes, rinsing the sins from their skin, even drinking the septic water, believing that as it is holy water it cannot be harmful to them.

I stood at a distance watched the procession walk past onto the burning platform, attracting the unwanted company of children and adults alike. I felt even the cows had gathered round to have a good look at me. The body, now stripped of its shawl and sandwiched between logs of wood, was set alight from underneath, creating a thick smoke. The bodyís feet were sticking out. A crooked woman swathed in jewellery shouted at a group of tourists to put away their cameras. Although a distressing scene, I did not feel moved nor did I feel I was intruding being stood so far away, but I did feel strangely out of place.

A short middle aged man dressed in a polo shirt and a flat cap walked toward me. People greet him with small waves and respectful calls of namastes, giving him an air of popularity. He introduced himself not by his name but by his job- manager of a Sati Widows Hospice. Named after a goddess who performed a similar act, the Sati widows are those that have, or have tried to immolate themselves on their husbandís burning pyre. Although illegal, Sati still occurs as it is frowned upon to remarry and they cannot bear to live a life alone. Without a husband, some are left without family or possessions, hence, the Sati Widows Hospice.

L Lane

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