The Business of Death at the Burning Ghats of Varanasi
September 2015
illustration

Cremation
© 

A young man approaches where I stand at the edge of the viewing platform and says it's okay to take photographs. Directly below us, though with a clear sense of separation, there are four funeral pyres at various stages of burning; one is almost finished, another is half way through (at its height), the third is being constructed, and the flames are just beginning to leap on the final one. The air is thick with heat and smoke, its odour seeping into my clothes and hair and skin.

Kunal* introduces himself. He is in his mid-twenties and from the caste of Untouchables who run the two cremation grounds at Varanasi. His family has worked at the ghats for seven generations and there are over 1000 clan members currently living in the buildings behind the main steps. When a person dies, their family pays for a space at the grounds and for the service of an Untouchable. One male member of Kunal's clan has charge of each funeral pyre and works with the family of the deceased throughout the entire process of the cremation until the final ritual is complete. Kunal's job is to talk with the tourists and get donations from them. Unlike the innumerable touts we'd met on our travels, whose sole purpose seemed to be to extort money from tourists, he spoke perfect English and was relaxed and knowledgeable about his business.

When a Hindu dies and the last rites and prayers have been performed by a priest (Antyeshti), the body is brought on a wooden stretcher down the steps of the ghat and laid beside the water. A female will be dressed in red and a male in white, the respective colours they wore on their wedding day. Family members place water from the Ganges into the mouth of the deceased for purification and then wait with the body while the pyre is constructed. When it is ready, the red or white clothing, flowers and other religious paraphernalia is removed and thrown into the water. The body, which will already have been rubbed with ghee (purified butter) to help it burn easier, is only wrapped in a white sheet when laid on the pyre. More logs are then placed on top.

Kunal points to the third pyre and explains that the head male of the family, often the eldest son, who is also dressed in white, is walking five times around the body. Five represents the elements of earth, fire, water, air, and ether. A flame is brought from a shrine dedicated to the God Shiva, a few metres away, where a fire is kept burning 24 hours every day of the year. The man in white ignites the first log with the flame. Then the family takes their leave to wait at the top of the steps of the ghat until the body has burned completely.

‘Why don't they stay with the body?’ I ask, surprised. ‘They get too upset,’ Kunal says. ‘The women do not come to the cremation because they cry, and tears keep the soul attached to this life instead of allowing it to transmigrate and be reincarnated.’

An average body needs 360 kg of wood and 3 hours to burn, and it is a far messier process than I've seen in films and documentaries. The chest (on a man) and the hips (on a woman) do not burn easily, and just like any wood fire, the Untouchable in charge must poke and push and readjust the limbs and bones and logs into a dense pile to keep the pyre burning with sufficient voracity. At Harish Chandra Ghat, 80 to 150 bodies are cremated in one day, and each one must be logged and registered, so that cause of death can be listed on the death certificate. In Varanasi, under normal circumstances, a cremation is usually carried out within 8 or 9 hours of death, so the Untouchables work day and night. The heat during the summer months is unbearable.

As a new body arrives and is taken towards the water, another family has returned to a pyre where the body has finished burning. A small piece of unburned flesh is given to the male dressed in white to throw into the river. The fish that eats it will help send the soul on to the next life. Thus, the final ritual of the cremation is over and the family goes home to mourn. All the ashes of the night's cremations will be washed into the river with a hose the following morning. The Untouchables will sift through the clothing and other material for jewellery and objects they can sell, which in turn helps to provide funerals for the poor, who cannot afford to pay for the space and wood.

Kunal says that different places at the ghat are delineated according to the caste and status of the dead person. Brahmins (at the top of the caste order) have a stone podium, which is raised to the same level as the viewing platform. The middle castes go close to the water, and the lower castes are on the steps further back from the water. There are also certain types of people who, because they are already pure and will not be reincarnated, are not cremated at all. These include enlightened holy men (sadhus), children under the age of ten, people with leprosy and those killed by snake bites. Their bodies are taken out to the middle of the river and sunk with a heavy stone. They will become flesh for the fish.

As I leave the cremation ground, the pyre of a woman is starting to really burn. The head end has been lit first, so the face gets charred quickly and becomes unrecognisable. The fire has not yet reached her feet, which are visible under the white sheet. When Kunal first started the work as a teenager, he once found half of a woman's face that had not burned and he felt scared looking at her. ‘We are all human,’ he says. ‘In death there is no caste, no money and no possessions. There are only good and bad memories in those still living of the life I have lived. The rest is my choice and my responsibility.’

I am humbled by Kunal's utmost respect for the vital service his family provides. And while most Hindus believe that hanging around a cremation ground is impure, I do not have this feeling. Being in this place where life and death meet, where Agni (God of Fire), the mediator of heaven and earth reigns in his element, the reality of our mortality is the only thing to behold. Here I can see clearly that all things are impermanent, and yet at the same time, feel how a body which is burdened with a multitude of attachments from life, still resists its dissolution.

Hindus have many unintelligible beliefs surrounding death, including the Pinda Ceremony, a ritual done in memory of dead ancestors, which I am not allowed to perform because I am a woman! Beyond the rituals of religion, however, there are the rituals embedded into the everyday, the habits that unconsciously bind us to the earth and that we cling to with all our might. Why not live lightly instead, with the questions and uncertainty of reality, in the space where all things fall apart?

[ *Kunal is not his real name ]