There’s nothing quite like a light shower of human ash before breakfast. But that understanding only came later, when I knew what was blowing over me.
Varanasi, on the banks of the sacred Ganges River, is the holiest of holy cities in India. Revered by Buddhists and Jains, it is the physical heart of Hindu cosmology, and considered the oldest continually populated city in India, 4 000 years and counting.
The residing panoramic image is the discordantly staggered skyline of its warren-like quarters and temples stretching nearly 4km along the river, and the thousands of people who flock daily to the deep steps (ghats) that line the river’s bank down to the waterline.
Ritual, cleansing and worship ceremonies (pujas) are performed along Mama Ganga’s bank every sunrise and sunset. Worshippers bathe in her waters, bathe in the morning glow of the pure first sun, absorbing the power of the dawn air. All pray. The very visit is a living prayer. The river is a temple as well as an incarnation of the goddess Ganga. Many Hindus believe life incomplete without bathing in the Ganges at least once.
The steps are 20, 30 or 40 deep, flood-season dependent. Fifty thousand walk down them each day, also to give thanks to Krishna, Shiva, do the washing, have a chat, get a shave, haircut, massage, do some yoga, listen to a holy man preach, have a swim, catch a fish, urinate, defecate, brush one’s teeth... and get cremated.
Dump the bags in a hotel room, head towards the river on an orientation amble and stumble into Manikarnika Ghat. Initially, a pervasive, burning odour insinuates itself. A short alley opens on to a charred riverbank, on to eight heavily blackened fire slabs, two smouldering heaps, and a pile of neatly stacked logs awaiting ignition, the stack roughly coffin-sized in length and twice as deep.
Manikarnika is Varanasi’s primary crematorium, 2km downstream from the smaller Harishchandra Ghat.
The 50m x 50m area carries an under-sung air of efficiency. Long barges drift in, moor and unload logs piled thrice-gunwale high. Lumber ranges from heavy kindling to solid, deep-red-hearted teak. Starkly sinewed, near-naked men carry the crushing weight on gaunt shoulders protected only by a sweaty rag, stumbling ashore along sagging gangplanks. Groups of passers-by, mourners, swell and recede in the eve’s heat.
A little bell-chime becomes audible, teasing and tinkling from behind a façade of timeless buildings. A murmur, muttering, then a clearer: “Rammmm, nammmm, sattyeeee, Rammmm, nammmm, sattyeeee...” (In the name of Ram/breath is truth).
Into view a procession appears led by four pall-bearers, barefoot, loin-clothed, turbaned, carrying shoulder-high a makeshift bamboo latticework laden with a body. A shiny red and gold cloth drapes the litter. The chanting group follow. The deceased is a woman, at a guess. The form is slight.
There is no bow to the frame, the bearers step easily down to the muddy bank, the char-blackened, ash-greyed muddy earth, down to the river’s edge, then knee-deep into the sacred water. The cradle and body are laid slowly into the river.
A dom (crematorium worker) tries to push the body under. She slips away from the hands flattened on her torso, half rolling sideways. Grab. He splashes holy Ganges water over her. Purifies her, washes away her sins.
They lift the bamboo frame and carry it halfway up the bank before laying it on the ground next to a waiting pyre. A dom bends, and without much obvious reverence, roughly unties the cord that had been holding the body to the frame.
The red and gold swathe is pulled off, revealing a thin, white, mummy-like cotton covering, tightly wrapped around the corpse. Hands grab the head and feet.
Rigor mortis has set in, the body does not buckle. She is lifted and placed on top of the waiting pile of logs. The lattice frame is cast over an old wall into a junk pile of bamboo bits and shiny materials that do not make it into the blazes. Minutes pass, while the white mummy lies, face up, open to the skies, waiting without impatience for the release of her soul.
The little bell tinkles again, the same rhythm, the same chant, another body arrives. Into the sacred river, into which 15 sewage outlets pump incessantly from Varanasi’s old-city section. This body sinks. Why do some sink and some float? Soon there are five or six bodies lying side by side in the gooey, grey-black mud. Clean, sparkling red amid the muck. Pyres are being erected. Rice is sprinkled on the first body and ghee liberally poured over her. A coin is placed on her mouth.
The chief dom arrives, a thick brush of smouldering grass in his hand. He hands it to a shaven-headed chief mourner. Only chief doms, keepers of the eternal flame, may bring the spark that will light the infernos. The mourner walks, slowly, five times around the body, clockwise, deferring to the right side of the body as Hindu rituals do, one circuit for each element – earth, wind, fire, water, soul.
A large holy Brahma cow snuffles at a piece of old material in the dumping site. It is 6pm. The sun has retired behind the tall line of old spires and rooftops. A purpleness replaces the brighter light of early dusk. The fire, which stuttered at first, has taken hold. Thick, heavy flames from within reach up, out and fold around the old woman’s outer limbs. She is not yet burning. Yet she is surely charring, shrinking, blackening. Smoothly, unnoticeably, three other mummy wrappings now also lie on their firebeds-to-be.
Now more pyres begin to flicker, some bolder than others. The fires down the bank, closest to the river, are of the cheapest wood for the lowest castes.
The higher the caste, the higher up the bank, and eventually a concrete platform, and the highest price for the highest quality timber. Rule of thumb: the heavier the wood, the longer and hotter it burns. Absolute dissolution for absolute absolution.
The first fire has reached a searing intensity. Thin trails of white smoke thread into the air, blotched with bits of light grey. Ash floats, flitters, drifts. There is no visible mourning, wailing. This is a time for quiet satisfaction.
Ritual has it that being cremated in Varanasi provides a gateway to liberation from the cycle of life and death, that Varanasi is the “crossing place” where devotees may enter into the realms of the divine, and a place that gods and goddesses might use as a landing stage to visit the Earth.
Only men may attend these ceremonies.
The British prohibited women in the early 19th century after they could no longer stomach widows jumping into the flames of their dead husbands, in a practice of total, final devotion and immolation known as sati. And “because they cry too much”, one of the male passing show cackles when I enquire.
Three hours. That’s what it takes until buckets of the Ganges douse the hot embers. The ashes are scraped up by shovel into flat bamboo baskets, placed on a junior dom’s head, and carried down to the edge of the bank, to be added to the communal ash heap.
One day the river will flow and flush in an annual cleansing. Between all the cleansing, purification, flame and smoke are the tourists, who surreptitiously slip through the proceedings, not exactly sure what to make of everything.
The purple sky begins to blacken, and the long shoreline lights up. Hundreds of lights reach out from multistorey buildings, old, old buildings, casting whites and blues and hues, and yellows and shadows across the lapping river, as chants of praise and thanks waft along the breeze, and hundreds of tiny floating candles wend their way down the current, launched nightly by many along the river’s edge.
Smoke billows intensely from one particular pyre, where someone seems to have mismeasured, or underpaid. A foot and lower leg stick out, beyond the end of a fire. A lot of smoke now. The breeze is light, and gently flexes the heat shimmer. Souls fill the air. I am breathing in the smoke. Am I breathing in souls only just set free?
The extended limb will not go gently into the young night. The fireman prods and shuffles an appropriate log.
But, in truth, Varanasi is not about death, it is far more about life. The cremations are only a small part of the astonishingly vibrant, ancient, city.
The rest of the shoreline is a pastel of delight, joy, ebullience, music, colours, scents. The city is overwhelmingly concerned with this life, the afterlife, the transference of lifedom. It is a city in constant celebration of life, of the godhead of Mother Ganga. It is to India and Hinduism what Jerusalem is to Christians and Jews, Mecca to Islam.
There is an overriding sense of calm, beauty, peace, kindliness. I find myself being overwhelmed by a sense of communal bliss, submerging into an indescribable, common, subconscious ecstasy.