Death in Banaras


Like Shiva, cremation is not just an act of destruction but an act of regeneration What shall I do today? Be still. Stop pounding the ghats, arrest that planning mind and the day dreams of immaterial affairs. So I return to the extraordinary place of every day death, Manikarin, the burning ghat of Varanasi. It is early one November morning, and the everlasting flame is burning in one solitary fire, and I am left in peace alone (for it is the hour when tourists take to boats and snap and flash photographs of men vigorously washing - the death guides, who will surely tempt you to a silk house, are still sleeping).

Kashi - luminous city of light - the hub of the universe. The beginning of time and the place where the corpses of creation will burn at the end of time. Kashi the cremation ground is where death is liberated from time. For all those who die in Kashi are granted liberation by Shiva. (Not unlike those who die at Mecca, Jerusalem or Compostella who go straight to heaven)

Like Shiva, cremation is not just an act of destruction but an act of regeneration in which through the death rituals paves the rebirth into the next life. At Manikarnika, where the pyres burn without interruption, creation here is continually replayed.

The morning is housekeeping. The scraping out of the ashes from old pits with easy lugubrious strokes into a bamboo basket, hoisted on a head and, in a continuous seamless gesture, cast upon a dust pile falling down into the Ganga river edge. There the 'sifter' of the old ash is already working. Like a gold panner he swiftly circles his bamboo conical basket semi submerged, searching for inorganic rhythms, a glint of a gold tooth, a ring. It is an important job, wealth is potentially huge, trust is vital; it is always given to a high up member of the family. The family are the Doms, the death clan who run the burning ghats, a huge family of ragged Untouchable caste, lowest of the low, their rags belie their riches, for death like material waste in the west is the most profitable business here. The head of the clan they say, is wealthier than the Brahmin Maharaja.

Next to the shifter and drawing us into the drama throughout the day is the unloading of logs from boats berthed at the river edge. Wood that has come the next state of Bihar or as far away as the heart of India, Madhya Pradesh, hard wood, strong thick rounds. Three huge logs are piled on a man's head, he clasps his arms up to them and on sinew legs slowly walks along a plank leading from the boat to the waters mud edge and up the uneven steps to the wood stack, to the weighers or to the cutters.
The morning air is cool and still and the only sound that breaks it is the chime of metal on metal, as with utterly unwasted strength, the wood cutter lifts and drops his massive hammer onto the metal wedge he has placed into the middle fault line of the log. When the crack is fallible he lifts his only other instrument, a heavy axe and with perfect accuracy strikes at the remaining sinew of wood holding the log together. The great whole timbers, carried on a mans head, are cut into manageable slices.

The singular burning body is now almost indistinguishable from the blackened wood, having been prodded by the pokers and smashers of matter, a man with a long green bamboo stick, who diligently stays with the body throughout the burning, making sure it behaves, burns smoothly, does not need more wood than the client has ordered. Some things, which could be legs, are lifted up and doubled back, yogic like towards the thorax into the concentration of the heat. A dog attempts to mate a bitch but she shrieks effectively and he is left pounding the air. Another morning chore, the washing is hung out on the useful metal railings that separate the upper from the lower burning areas, a bright orange lunghi, triangular pieces of cloth that I now know to be men's underwear, are spread to dry in the sun and warmth of the flame and no doubt infuse with flesh smelling smoke. Yes, the air has a faint whiff of flesh - western BBQ's are never the same once you have experienced and smelt the burning ghats.

A crash of wood. Another pit is being prepared. The wood has been weighed, the deal has been done, Rs10,000 for a woman, Rs15,000 for a man, and more for the adornmnets, the sandlewood, the ghee, the trappings.

Above where I stand in silent open rooms lie old women widows, who one suspects have arrived here with some encouragement from their in-laws. They wait for their death forever fearful of not having enough rupees to pay for enough wood to burn their fragile bodies. There are toutes why ply their story, take your heart wrenched money, but it is doubtful if it goes to them - years ago I gave hundred rupees ('Give 30 more for one load', they asked). Nothing is as it seems in this city. Another head full of wood crashes down.

'Ram nam sathya hai, Ram nam sathya hai', (Truth is the name of Ram! Truth is Ram.) Men's growling voices in a distance getting louder, turning a corner, arriving. Four men are the pall bearers. Dressed in rags, they carry a fragile bamboo ladder on top of which is a body. It is a married woman, the matter under the cloth is small and red. The colour code is useful. They carry her down to the edge of the Ganga river for clensing is important in all stages of the death ritual, a dip into the holiest of rivers. It is for this that she has come here, the most auspicious place to die in India, to be near Mother Ganga at her death. It is for this that hundreds come here just to die, waiting in purpose built hospices near by, their families with them waiting, the smell of bodies burning, the chant of Ram Ram, all around. What a forthright meditation on death. An entourage of scruffy men who have followed the woman's body, who have certainly not dressed up for the occasion, dissipate uncertain of what to do next. But there are plenty of Doms around indistinguishable in similar rags from the mourners who will gruffly point and guide. There is no queue. Space is always found. She is unceremoniously dunked in the water, (the shifter, I notice, is undisturbed in his work) and placed beside the pile of wood that is being neatly and expertly stacked in a strict architecture of a pyre, left hollow for the initial flame. Her adornments are removed. The strings of marigolds are casually thrown backwards into the river, one misses, a cow sees his chance and moves with unaccustomed speed for a good breakfast. Where are the fields of marigolds that must be vast and plentiful to supply this never ending need, birth, arrival, marriage, death? I have never seen them.

A young boy, a teenager, beats some water buffalo down to the water for their daily submerge, their heavy heads buoyant on the water surface.
A death guide arrives beside me.
'Hello madam. This is dead man.' It is a successful place to tout, and money is not the exchange for the story, rather 'Just come looking to my silk shop, just looking, very close.' Once, I had a death guide. I bled him for all he was worth, and then the next day in bubbling enthusiasm I robbed another of his chance, explaining the scene to some first time lookers, eager to impart, to shock. This death guide swiftly realises my lack of worth with my flurry of Hindi and disappears.

Stripped now of all adornments, marigolds, glittering gold and red paper wrappings, the matter, bound lightly in a red cloth, is lifted by two Doms onto the prepared pyre, her legs are bent, there is no rigormortis.

Shaven headed, Ganga immersed, and dressed in a brand new simple translucent lunghi, the chief mourner arrives, the eldest son. He is an obvious contrast to the uniforms of unlaundered lunghis him. He is uncertain and uncomfortable in his central role and willingly takes orders from the resident priest, once again indistinguishable from the rest. He and the priest spread the sandalwood, the incense and the ghee, head to foot. A bushel of young faggots are doubled back on themselves and lit from a smoking ember from the near by fire, the everlasting flame is linked. The shaven headed white lunghied mourner must circle the body five times, touching the head at each pass, all the time the embers taking hold of the faggots, until the final turn, the faggots alight now, they are placed in the hollow below the body.

The ghee takes hold, dark smoke rises, the cotton wrap catches, the first waft of sandlewood and meat hits my nostrils, white it is as it is seared, like chicken. The action is over, the participants squat near by, the prodder and smasher of matter takes over with his chop stick. It is a woman's body, the burning will take no more than 3-4 hours. The only event is the poping of the skull, which I have only heard once.
'Ram Ram sathya hai, Ram Ram sathya hai', another stretcher arrives, they are piling up now for the day, lining the way, mourners mingling. Not for the first time in Varanasi, Shiva's city, I miss the warmth and balance of women; not one in sight. 'Women too emotional', someone - a man - explained to me. Only once have I seen a woman here, performing the ceremony, dressed in white, head shaved, 'She is the only one left' I was told.

The first body of the day is preparing for the final action. The prodder and smasher of matter has done his work, all that is left is the obstinate hip bone. With two bamboo sticks and the dexterity of a Chinaman, he clasps the last remnant of charred matter, hands it firmly to the waiting head mourner, who dashes with it nervously at arms length to the Ganga water side, then hesitates, turns for instructions, a hand dismisses him to wade in. Up to his knees now, close to the shifter who moves slightly out of the direction, he turns again for fresh instruction, which is to jettison all. Relieved, he does it and squelches his way back to dry land.

Something of the body is always offered up to the Ganga. The pots of water are prepared. A chain of mourners forms to relay the pots to the pyre. Five times the mourner walks round the empty fire, five times for each of the five elements: earth, water, fire, ether. On the final round, he turns his back to it, places the clay water pot on his shoulder, throws it behind him, and walks away. Just that. Walks away. No looking back. Pillar of salt stuff.

Varanasi 2001


Paraphrased from the Kashi Khanda

During the period of cosmic dissolution all creation was destroyed and all was darkness. There was neither sun, nor moon, nor stars, no form or sense perception. All that existed was Brahman which cannot be apprehended by the mind or described by speech, and which is without shape, name or colour or any physical attribute. This undivided one (advaita) desired to become two and accomplished this by his own divine play (lila). 'I Shiva am the material form of that immaterial Brahman. Oh Parvati, together we shall create the sacred area of Kashi.

Wandering in this forest of Bliss, Shiva and Parvati desired to create another being to whom they could hand over the burden of the whole rest of creation. This was Vishnu, whose breath was the Vedas, through which he was omniscient, and according to which he was instructed to perform his task.

Vishnu dug a tank with his discus. This tank filled with the sweat of the terrible austerities he performed by its side for 50,000 years as he constructed the universe. At the end of this time Shiva and Parvati came and saw Vishnu burning with the fire of his asceticism. Shiva was entranced, and with the violent trembling of his delight, his ear-ring dropped off into Vishnu's tank. Shiva decreed that this tank should thenceforth be known as Manikarnika (jewel of the ear). Vishnu was told to demand a boon. He asked for this sacred place to confer mukti - liberation - and Shiva added that for those who reside in Kashi it will always be the satya yuga (Age of Truth)

The place is marked by Vinshu's footprints. It was, of course, the most auspicious of places to be burned - on Vishnu's footsteps. But this particular cremation ground has been banned after complicated intriguing chain of events:

The anti-burning campaign was led by an unlikely coalition of the most powerful pilgrimage-priests (pandas). They ran an 'authenticity' letter campaign through press (claiming that it was not an authentic site and promoted hypocritically by the British for their own reasons), and one priest was arrested for lying on a pyre and insisting on the mourners burning him with their corpse. They were led by Anjaninandan Mishra. It was in fact a matter of simple material interest. The Pandas derived no income from rituals but from those who came to ghat to bath. The smoke was putting bathers off, and income fell. Not only the smoke and heavy traffic of bodies, but the quality and class: all sorts of riff-raff were now burnt at the feet of Vishnu, social climbers, upstart politicians, even Untouchables like the father of Dom Raja. The dignity of the place was being compromised.

The result was that Vinshnu's marble footsteps were first surrounded by an iron railing and then in 1992 the area enshrined under a gazebo-like structure, making cremation impossible.

One of Shiva's boons to Vishnu was that Kashi perpetually remains in the Satya yuga, the golden age of the original time. All time is auspicious there, and not even the worst planetary conjunctions should prevent the pilgrim from setting out for the sacred city.

"Since tomorrow will provide for itself, the true Baranasi whiles away the day in the pan shop on the corner, doing body-building exercises at one of the city's innumerale wrestling schools, indulging his fancy for music or caged birds, or merely sitting on his roof in a pleasurable hemp induced haze of bhang. A burping, pot-bellied, pan-spitting jocularity or muscle-bound devil-may-care assertiveness provides the predominant stereotypes for those who work and live by Manikarnika Ghat, rather than the morbit morosesness one might perhaps associate with people who spend thei lives in an atmosphere perpetually permeated by the smoke and smell of the funeral pyre. Their self image iis above all summed up by the words mast and phakkarpan. Mast is hard to define in English but conveys the idea of an intoxicated joy and amusement at the divine comedy of the world. phakkarpan has the sense of a carefree eccentricity. Both are pre-eminently characteristics of Lord Shiva himself. If an ultimate 'good' in Banarasi value scheme is a sense of freedom from constraint, then it is not only Shiva who provides the role model but also Shiva who is seen as making it possible. In life, this city as a store-house of plenty assures freedom from want; while in death it assures an ultimate freedom.

Brahman priests:
Brahmans who set dominant religious tone in the city. Not all earnest learnedness: 'Indeed their reputation for chicanery is at least as great as their reputation for scholarship. The Sakshrit mantras they recite have been learned by rote; they have little idea of their real meaning, and some are reduced to inaudible mumbling and brazening it out with gobbledegook in the confident expectation that their patrons will never know the difference.'

Mahabrahmenm (The funeral priest)
The Funeral Priest or Mahabrahmen is a vessel for the rapacious greed of the ghost, worshiped as the dead man, dresses in his clothes fed his favorite food. There is a wonderful story of the King of Tribhuvan of Nepal (whose funeral Sugata photographed in 1955). After his death and for the ritual 12 days, the Kings Mahabrahmen slept in his Kings bed, smoked the Kings cigarettes, took anything he wanted, and was fed by the royal kitchen. But the food was always deliberately contaminated with a paste made from the kings forehead. After the ritual time of 12 days the Mahabrahmen was given two elephants, Rs200,000 and sent into exile in India forbidden to ever return to Nepal and people lined the street to stone and jeer at him.





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