We Ghat-ta Get Outta This Place

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

I’ve recently returned from an amazing seven weeks in India. For my first month, as previously blogged, I obtained my 300hr Yoga Teacher Training Certification. For the remaining weeks I saw as much of India as I possibly could of! I’m left hungry for more in all honesty…

In just eighteen days I managed to see fourteenth century ruins in Hampi, the birthplace of Ashtanga in Mysore, European influenced Fort Kochi, rows upon rows of tea plantations in Munnar, the Hindu mecca and place of holy cremation ceremonies in Varanasi, the Taj Mahal in Agra (3/7 wonders!), the sacred lake surrounded by desert in Pushkar and the white city of Udaipur!

It was a lot! I was on the move almost every second day but it was so worth it. Each place had something totally different to offer and I feel so blessed to of been able to experience as much of it as I could. I tried as much food from the different regions, happily forgoing cutlery and using my right hand only, and had some of the most amazing street food of my life and didn’t even get sick this time! (someone send me a decent recipe for Aloo Tikki Chaat asap!) I witnessed beautiful ceremonies and rituals practiced devoutly by all walks of life. I felt peace in sacred temples of a religion that is not my own. I met fellow travellers who just like me, fell in love with India over and over again with every sunrise and sunset.

A lot of people warned that It was dangerous to travel India alone especially as a female, but to allow fear to drive my decisions just isn’t an option for me. I will note that I travelled to fairly safe areas that a lot of tourist flock to. I’m also not a trail blazer. Women have been travelling solo in countries like India for decades. I think the key is to stay informed, be respectful and to make educated decisions whilst doing so. Sure! Things go terribly, terribly wrong in some rare cases, I’m aware of this, but plenty of terrible and awful things occur in Australia too…let’s not forget that. I took overnight sleeper trains and buses, travelled and navigated new cities totally alone, and I experienced nothing but kindness, beauty, generosity and care. I was exposed to one of the most beautiful and peaceful cultures that I’ve experienced in my travels.

People would share their food with me, make sure that I had a safe place to stay and a way to get there. Strangers would ask me about my country and were intrigued by why I was amazed by theirs. Beautiful souls explained their religion and their beliefs to me without ever being preachy or overwhelming. They expressed an utterly unwavered, dedication to their faith and it was astounding. The people that I encountered were only happy to share it all. I think my biggest culture shock was the experience in Varanasi. Varanasi is a Mecca where Hindu’s travel from all over, and a lot choose Varanasi as their final “resting place” or rather where they physically leave the earth. In order to break the cycle of reincarnation and reach nirvana, they practice a holy and extremely important ritual of cremation by the River Ganges or Mother Ganga. To give you an idea of just how important it is, in the winter (when more people pass) up to 500 bodies can be burnt in one day.

I chose to go on a Ghat tour to try and understand more of this ritual. We took a boat out on to the Ganges with our Tour Guide, Anil, who was incredibly informative. He showed some of the 90 Ghats (essentially steps that lead down to the Ganga) in Varanasi as we floated by. There are two Ghats that are used exclusively for cremation ceremonies. We floated by, getting fairly close whilst still being respectful of course. One of the two cremation ghats used is larger and at one point there were 20 odd bodies being burnt. To clarify, you don’t actually see an out in the open body being burnt, the body is covered in white cloth and completely surrounded by wood. Anil said we were allowed to take photos from a distance, I’ll admit I did out of complete astonishment, but have since deleted them…It didn’t feel right. In a world where we take photos of EVERYTHING, some things are best left un-captured. (Plus you can google it if you need visual aid)

This process may sound morbid and confronting, but this is only because it’s completely different to what we know as westerners and how we approach and deal with death. This cremation ceremony is seen as a rite of passage for dedicated Hindus. Just as a church service funeral would be to a dedicated Catholic. I’m know that in any culture, there is overwhelming grief when losing a loved one, but during the cremation ceremony itself it isn’t a sad experience as the lost loved one is finally reaching Nirvana. Tears aren’t allowed and for this reason women aren’t traditionally allowed at the cremation site. Mantras and prayers are sung, offerings are made and the life of the loved one is celebrated. Once the body is completely cremated, the remains are released into the Ganges. Generally in a male the chest is the last to burn and in women it’s the hips. Whilst we were listening to Anil, we saw a cremation ceremony end. The man in charge of the ceremony extinguished the fire with water from the Ganga, and from the remains took a set of hips from the ashes, to then release it finally into the river.

I’ve lost loved ones. I know what that heartache feels like and I firmly believe this type of grief exists in any culture, so my intention is not to minimise that grief or to flippantly discuss losing someone. However, this experience in Varanasi totally changed my perception of what death is to me. I no longer feel afraid of my personal death. It shouldn’t be this scary, taboo topic. Death is inevitable and it’s what makes life so precious. The fact that it does indeed have an expiry date whether you believe in an after-life or not, THIS life has an expiry date.

It can be really hard to comprehend a ritual or approach to death such as this particular Hindu Rite of Passage, especially as a westerner. However it’s important to at least try to understand. You don’t necessarily have to agree with it, but at least try to understand the process, the reasonings and relevance to that culture or religion.

I think that occasionally we have a warped perception of different cultures and countries and we approach it with fear, hatred and in some cases racism. Coming from a small, rural town in Australia i’ve seen this approach first hand. To approach anything that is different with cynicism, fear, ignorance and hatred is what sets us back as a human race. India is a beautiful and safe place if you approach it as such and with correct and intelligent information.

As I’ve returned home to this small, rural town in Australia, I aim to at least discuss and inform. I may not change perceptions, but I can attempt to discuss and inform.

Love & Light, Claire

“If we lose love and self respect for each other, this is how we finally die”- Maya Angelou.

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