Varanasi: Sadhu’s, Concrete Blocks and Burning Bodies

Varanasi: Sadhu’s, Concrete Blocks and Burning Bodies
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“After a little while he asked my friend to try to pick up a huge concrete block wrapped in an orange cloth. That’s when things started to get really interesting.”

Sadhu’s are the Hindu holy men. If you have ever visited India you will undoubtedly run into them in one place or another. They are unmistakable. Often wearing saffron coloured robes with painted faces or ash smeared on various parts of their bodies. Sadhu’s often are nomadic and do not have a home or more possessions than they can carry. They have chosen not to integrate with modern-day society, to spend their time focusing on spiritualism. I was very curious about these holy men, they cut a striking figure and often walk around asking for money and carrying staffs or bundles or who knows what. They are possibly the most contrasting people to Australians that I have encountered on my search across the globe.

Much to my delight, I had a fantastic chance to get up close and personal with one and find out a little more about these mystical beings during my visit to what is dubbed “the holiest city in India”, Varanasi.

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Varanasi is a magical place without even trying. One side of the river has ghat after ghat all the way along, backed by various buildings, guesthouses and temples. A ghat is basically some steps leading down to a body of water, often used for bathing. In Varanasi they are the access points to the mighty river Ganges. Locals and pilgrims alike flock to Varanasi, and the river, to bathe in its holy waters. To be honest you wouldn’t catch me dead even putting my hand in there. It is one of the most polluted rivers in the world.

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As I was exploring with a couple of friends one afternoon, we walked past a makeshift structure of bamboo with some tarps over the top, close to the water’s edge at one of the ghats. A voice called out from inside saying hello and inviting us to sit down. We went inside hesitantly, took off our shoes and sat down. There were 3 Sadhu’s inside. We sat down.

Then I saw a black shiny head pointed in my direction. A cobra. It was weaving its way around the bamboo at about eye level. I looked at the Sadhu nearest to me with alarm in my eyes and he just smiled. The snake was harmless and friendly they told us. Even so, and even though I like snakes, I found that once it slithered out of sight I couldn’t relax completely. They made some tea for us and gave a blessing to one of my friends. I was a little suspicious as I am of every local in a tourist area in India. Most people are just out to get your money. My curiosity overcame my suspicion though and I played along. They seemed like some pretty cool guys. It’s best to trust your instincts in situations like this but don’t fully let your guard down.

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We had many questions about their lives and they had questions for us too. One of them was 6 years in to a 14 year vow of silence and used hand signals to convey what he wanted. Communication with him was an interesting challenge. He was definitely the most hardcore of the three. Another was older, a guru, he was the one that performed the blessing. The third was the most outgoing. His name was Krishna and he was 23 years old.

After a little while he asked my friend to try to pick up a huge concrete block wrapped in an orange cloth. That’s when things started to get really interesting. My friend stood over the top of it and grabbed the top of the cloth where it was tied above the block, positioning the block between his legs. He managed to use all of his strength and lift it about 10cm off the ground for about 3 seconds. He is a pretty fit guy, over 6 feet tall and clearly struggled to get it off the ground.

Where was this leading?

I could only guess.

“If you would like to see, he can pick up that block with his penis” were the next words out of Krishna’s mouth. “It will cost 1000 Rupees” (approx $20).

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We didn’t know what to say. After a little while longer we left the tent. We came back later with another friend and decided this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and we wanted to see after all. We offered them 500 rupees and they agreed. I don’t really want to go into too much detail, but the hardcore guy who was doing the vow of silence absolutely picked up that block of concrete with his penis. It was pretty impressive. He showed us a picture afterwards of him pulling a car with it.

I found out later that this is a practice they use in order to destroy their erectile tissue and squash any sexual desires which would get in the way of their holy lifestyle. Not the path I would choose but each to their own!

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We hung around with them a bit longer and then said our goodbyes. The next day I was flying solo as my friends had departed to go elsewhere. I went for another wander down by the ghats and ended up – you guessed it – back in that tent again. I chatted to Krishna for a while and then continued on my way. He had asked me to get him some food to bring it back, I said I would see what I could find but felt a bit strange about it.

I made it as far as the burning ghats where I stopped to watch possible one of the most foreign possible scene’s I could imagine unfold before me. The burning ghats are a place where Hindu’s can burn their dead relatives on big pyres on the concrete ghat next to the Ganges. All Hindu’s (with a few exceptions such as babies and Sadhu’s) must be burnt when they pass away. Their bodies are carried through the streets by the family members before being laid out on the pyre and cremated.

Krishna soon joined me as I tried to figure out what was happening. He was welcome company and a good source of information. The bodies take 3 hours to burn and any unburnt parts after that are thrown into the river. There are a lot of turtles in the river who eat the body parts. There are men who attend the fires who carry big bamboo sticks. They use these to break the bodies apart as the are burning and push loose limbs back into the fire if they come apart. There were 5 funeral pyres burning during the time I was there and more being set up.

It is a very confronting scene. It is one thing to watch a fire and know there is a body inside. It’s a whole new level when you see someone’s legs sticking out of the flames. It’s heartbreaking to see the grieving family sitting around watching and it’s very, very strange for me that this is all happening in a public place which is frequented by tourists. It is highly disrespectful to take photos of the pyres obviously.

I said goodbye to Krishna and slipped him a few rupees. I will never be sure if he wanted to talk to me or if he wanted money but I didn’t mind either way. He was good company.

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