Elham Ansari (left) and Rebecca Cuttler on the Ganges River in India.

Elham Ansari (left) and Rebecca Cuttler on the Ganges River in India.

Varanasi: the holiest Hindu city

February 22, 2007

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The first SFU Field School in Contemporary Art and Culture of India left Vancouver on January 18 for eight weeks in Varanasi, Delhi and Mumbai. Students are studying music, dance, visual art, theatre and film under the auspices of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Whistling Woods Institute of Film & Television. Rebecca Cuttler, a fourth-year student in critical studies at the Emily Carr Institute of Art+Design, one of the group of nine led by Patricia Gruben of SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts, writes of her experiences in Varanasi, the holiest Hindu city and arguably the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.

"The body is like a house", our guide told us. "After 80, 100 years, it becomes dirty and needs to be destroyed completely".

On the sacred river, hawkers hounded us. "Ganga supermarket!" cried one whose vessel was laden with beaded necklaces, Buddhist figurines, and postcards. The boats were packed so closely that boys ran across them.

Two or three bodies burned on the steps of the funeral ghat. A friend whispered that it felt rude to be watching a ritual to which we were outsiders. But privacy is impossible here.

Men urinate in the open air. People stare at visitors and children rush to sell their boxes of bindi colours—tiny pots of brightly coloured powder which are mixed with oil and applied to the forehead to mark the third eye.

It takes care to learn to trust the senses. We rose early on our third morning to watch the sun rise over the pearl-coloured water. A grey mass floated behind us. I sensed immediately what it was even though I did not know that it was possible for a body to be left unburned.

When he was close I stopped doubting myself. His testicles bobbed in slight mis-time to the river's rising. His anus was starkly exposed, prominent against withered flesh. He was grey-white-blue, waxy-slimy, with bloated skin split across his lower back. Later we learned that holy men, having overcome their physical selves in life, are not burned but sunk to the riverbed.

Sometimes, a corpse breaks loose from its bindings and rises to the surface.

Cleansing entails a turning-up of the debris, holding it to the light, bringing forth the unclean hidden and then allowing it to be carried away.

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