Last of three articles about India
By Marilyn L. Pinsky
Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world, is where Hindus make pilgrimages to dip in the Ganges River. It is also where families bring their departed loved ones to be cremated as the city is considered sacred. You see wrapped bodies on the tops of cars hundreds of miles away driving to Varanasi for the cremations.
Cremations take place night and day. After a religious ceremony, the bodies are brought down to a platform on one of the many levels on the riverside ghat (broad stairs) and set on fire. Our group went at night, watching from a short distance away, sitting in small wooden boats surrounded by mourners and tourists in other wooden boats. Vendors floated in between the boats selling food and religious items.
The oldest male in the family shaves his head and dresses in white; he is the chief mourner and in charge of the pyre. The sounds of ringing bells fill the air and multiple fires light up the night. After the cremation, the ashes are put in the Ganges so the soul may travel to heaven. The sight of multiple cremations all up and down the ghat was amazing, emotional and lovely.
But, like many things, there are other considerations. So much wood is needed for a cremation, that it is causing problems with the forests. The best wood for burning is hardwood but it is expensive and out of reach for many families. Pollution of both the air and the river is a problem. But cremation on wood pyre is so ingrained in the Hindu culture that available green alternatives are being ignored.
I really hate to write about air pollution again because climate change is such a hot button political topic right now. But it would be negligent to have had the experience of mass pollution and not write about it. Within a week of our group’s arrival the majority of people had difficulty breathing even while wearing masks. People were sick with hacking coughs and burning eyes.
In the United States we take breathing clean air for granted and often forget the benefits brought about by the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency. Though the Indian government is making great strides in changing their fuel sources to green alternatives in order to reduce pollution, it will take time. As an additional problem, many farmers cannot afford to clear their fields other than burning straw left from the previous season’s crops. That smoke then travels hundreds of miles contributing to pollution and smog.
As Americans we comply with certain safety rules and as much as there are complaints about government intrusion, seeing places without these regulations is startling.
There, for instance, public buses and even trains have people sitting on the top, hanging off the sides and jumping on and off even as they’re moving. People congregate on the roofs of five story buildings that don’t have railings. Because there is no real effort for smoking cessation, mouth cancer runs rampant in India and seeing people with badly deformed faces is not unusual. And road marking lines are merely decorative.
Enough lecturing. Despite all that, I still loved the country.
One thing that cuts across all languages and cultures is food. On a flight from Mumbai (Bombay) to Udaipur, I sat next to a woman who had ordered a “Jain” meal. Her husband had a vegetarian meal and as both their meals looked vegetarian to me, I asked her what the difference was. She explained that Jains only eat vegetables grown above the ground as their belief is non-violence and respect toward all living beings. Therefore potatoes and onions are not eaten as they grow below the ground and tiny life forms, such as small insects, could be injured when the root vegetables are pulled from the ground.
I’m leaving out so much more that was fascinating to me. The contrast was striking between New Delhi with its British buildings and wide streets and Old Delhi, where the streets are lined with small shops and small houses over them that hold large families. It was scary to see hundreds of electric wires crossing over streets and going from building to building. Old Delhi is predominately Muslim and religion is involved in every facet of life. It has the most important mosque in India and 20,000 people pray there at a time. I wore a burka to tour the mosque, which is beautiful.
I left the good friends I had made on the tour and flew to Nepal for a few days. I feel badly giving short shrift to a fascinating country. I only visited Kathmandu, the major city, and was awed by the work they are doing to recover their beautiful ancient buildings from a massive earthquake two years ago. In addition to Hinduism, Buddhism is a very visible religion with Buddhas and stupas (religious structures) everywhere. In one, known as the Monkey Temple, monkeys literally jump in front of you and conduct their lives around you.
I was lucky to see Mt. Everest as the daily tour planes could only fly right after dawn and were not guaranteed to take off depending on weather conditions. As it was a small plane, or rather a large sardine can with wings, the pilot invited us to take turns coming into the cockpit to take pictures. I really wanted him to stop talking and just pilot the darn plane. But the view of the Himalayas was spectacular, though to me all the mountains looked alike. I was told I saw Mt. Everest, so I guess I did. Getting back on earth was pretty good, too.
I will end with a story of my favorite part of traveling — encounters with people that in a short time you know could be friends. On my way home, I met a Pakistani woman in Abu Dhabi as we were waiting for our connecting flights. She spoke English and in our intense half hour together, we knew each other’s life stories. Neither of us wanted to stop talking and we hugged when we had to go our separate ways; I felt I was losing a friend.