Crossing Place: A Year in Varanasi

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Virtue does not grow easily in Banaras. And vice has no better place. For all come here to burn. – Raja Rao Allegory from Banaras

Death is ever present in the Holy City. To visit here without encountering it is impossible. Sipping chai in the narrow galis (alleys) of the old quarter, one hears the distant sounds of chanting. Ram Nam Satya Hai. Ram Nam Satya Hai[1] . A minute later, six men bearing a corpse on a bamboo ladder come into view, walking purposefully towards the river. Bound in white muslin, the corpse is often decorated with silver tinsel, or a garland of orange marigolds. It moves, in funereal stillness, towards the cremation ground, and the world beyond.

One or two of the chai drinkers look up. Most barely raise a glance from their newspapers, or falter in their recounting of the latest test match scores. Bodies pass through these alleyways with as great a frequency as cattle or goats, and there is no cause for alarm.

Drawing closer to the cremation Ghat itself, one confronts an even starker view. Here, in plain sight, corpses smoulder amongst carefully stacked piles of wood, and the air is filled with the burning smell. Amongst the mourners, tears are very rare. Rather, there is a calm acceptance of what is, and the surety of a relative that has ended their journey at the most auspicious place in the Hindu world. "If only a bone of a person shall touch the water of the Ganges," says the Mahabharata, "that person shall dwell, honoured, in heaven."[2]

What was it that made this unique amongst cities? What characteristics separated it from its peers?

I had come to Varanasi to understand, if I could, this most ancient of cities - to breathe in the pungent smells of its labyrinthine streets. I wanted to see kites flying on the flat roofs and buffalos submerged in the muddy river. I hoped for conversations at paan stalls that might illuminate the threads that pass – as if from a weaver’s loom – through the interconnected pieces of this Hindu Jerusalem. I yearned for the coolness of its temple stone beneath my feet, the tones of a conch shell blown at dawn.

More than this, I wanted to know the city’s secrets, press my ear to its heartbeat. What was it that made this unique amongst cities? What characteristics separated it from its peers? Every city is remembered for certain innate hallmarks: special foods, buildings, weather systems, a thousand upshots of geo-politics and happenchance. These are the qualities – like those of some cherished vintage wine – peculiar to this place and none other. They’re the substance of the songs and artefacts, they’re painted and danced about, and the inhabitant of the city – away on some journey – will bow his head to think of them when he hears the word "home." For the visitor, these are sometimes the hardest things to recognise, far harder still to put into words. Only the city itself, perhaps, knows the covert language with which to express them. Nevertheless, I was prepared to try.

Looming large amongst these quirks of Varanasi is its association with death. For the visitor to the city, especially from the West, the ubiquity of death here can seem shocking, and one of India’s greatest contrasts with our own deeply private traditions. Like so many travellers, I’d gone to see the cremation Ghats on my first visit, eager for this rite of passage into the city. I rose at five o’clock one morning, and strolled down to the waterfront where I engaged the services of a boatman. Mist pooled over the river, and the air rang with the plaintive cawing of crows. The boatman was an aged fellow, who drew the oars through the water with a look of excruciating effort. Veins stood out on his forearms like threads of wire.

As we drew close to the city’s most esteemed Manikarnika Burning Ghat, I could make out the orange glow of a funeral pyre on the shoreline and trembled to notice the body on fire, the smell of smoke in the air. A skyline of soot-darkened temples formed the backdrop, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much of that carbon deposit was formed from the dust of human bodies; the wind pushed it back into the very structure of the city. Amalgamations of history, cities are constructed of the dead as much as the living. Varanasi, perhaps, most of all.


For some time I sat and watched this primal scene: families arriving with their departed loved ones, some glimpsing the Ganges for the first time in their lives. The resonant clanking of temple bells, the low tones of Vedic chanting. White birds flying over the river, tourists wrinkling their noses in disgust. It seemed intensely poetic, but also without artifice; nothing is concealed. "Everything ends in this place," said my boatman on that first morning." But also everything is beginning. Bodies end their journey here and return to spirit. This is what we have always been, of course, but while living we forget this."

I let the words sink in, my spine tingling a little as their resonance coursed through me. These concepts, if believed in fully, could change everything; that death would cease to become a conclusion, but merely a crossing place from one world to the next. And that the human form, so tangible and solid, might simply be a costume to wear for a time then drop like an old suit of clothes. I looked down at my fingers with a newfound suspicion, imagining myself, at some future time, burning on these Ghats, and this world dropping away.

"Everything ends in this place," said my boatman on that first morning. "But also everything is beginning."

To comprehend the ancient association between Varanasi and death, one must look back several millennia. No one knows exactly how old Varanasi is but it may be as much as four thousand, its present shape reaching back to the 6th century BC in a continuous tradition. For much of this period the city has lain at the heart of the faith we now call Hinduism, standing as the place of creation, representing the whole of the universe in a single symbolic circle, a mandala. It is according to this tradition, still practised by the majority of the world’s one billion plus Hindus, that the cosmos is composed of a cycle of death and rebirth called samsara. This notion lies at the heart of the Hindu faith, and is the basis for understanding religious life here. In human terms the ultimate goal of this life is not paradise, as in the Abrahamic traditions, but liberation from this never-ending wheel. Called moksha in the Sanskrit texts, this "liberation" means to merge with Brahman, the Ultimate Reality itself, never to be reborn.

Into this picture, the mythology of Varanasi adds an all-important twist. For it is said that if one should draw one’s last breath anywhere in the city, the entire cycle of death and rebirth can be side-stepped: moksha is granted regardless of one’s current place in samsara. For some Hindus, this is little more than a superstition and, while they accept the city as sacrosanct, its ability to act as a kind of spiritual “get out of jail free card” remains moot. For the vast majority, however, this belief is absolutely wholehearted, and thus the city’s greatest power. Death here becomes free of terror and a gateway into the realm of the immortals. A folk saying – still muttered by pilgrims – reads "Kashyam maranam muktih[3] ", “Death in Kashi is liberation.”

It is a bright morning in November when I arrive at Harishchandra Ghat, the second of Varanasi’s two sacred cremation grounds. By the rules of Indian caste, in which social classes are defined according to thousands of hereditary groups, these Burning Ghats are managed by a people known as the Dom Raja. These are a subset of the larger Dom caste that includes scavengers, weavers of ropes and baskets, and magicians and jugglers.

I’m here to meet one of their elders, a man named Gupta Choudhary, whom I hope will provide a unique perspective on the subject of death in the holy city. Despite the fact that the Dom are considered outcastes, I’m struck at once by Gupta’s upright bearing and dignified smile. Receiving me in a small open-fronted structure - a sort of lean to shed built on to the side of Bhairav temple - he smooths out a bamboo mat for me to sit on. A sober looking man, he wears a plain Kurta, with two bright streaks of crimson and white on his forehead. He has large ears, from which coal black tufts of hair protrude to an impressive distance. Studying me with open amusement, he lets out a peal of laughter that shatters any preconceptions I may have about the Dom. It’s the laugh of someone absolutely at ease with life, full-throated and infectious. Vitality exudes from him, surprisingly, in this place of bereavement.

Sitting before an open fire, and observed with interest by several of the younger Dom, Gupta tells me about his life at the cremation ground. From this vista, we can see the ugly concrete structure housing the recently introduced electric crematorium, as well as a drift of smoke from the more traditional pyres at the water’s edge. The open space besides the river Ganges provides the arena for the burning of bodies, which are spaced in an ordered fashion on their pyres. It’s another normal day for these men, who crack jokes and puff small chillums of marijuana, while the business of death unfolds. Far out in the current, a fisherman throws his net into the brackish water, while from a distant temple, a harmonium hums a soft monotone.

“The special jati (caste/characteristic) of our family is to give the tilak (mark on the forehead) to the dead bodies, and tend to the sacred fire," says Gupta, noticing me watching the funeral. "By doing this work, the dead benefit.”

“According to our mythology, Yama, the Lord of Death was once a mortal himself," he continues. "He became the first to break free of samsara, and find his way to the celestial abode. When it is our time he calls us to follow him. No one can resist that call.”

“But surely when you’re dead, you’re dead,” I say. “How does ritual help when the life has left your body?”

Gupta tilts his head sympathetically. “That is a very Western view. Because firstly, we do not say death is the end. Death is simply the cessation of activity in the body. Once this has happened, there is a period when the jiva – you may call this soul – prepares to continue its journey. It is our job to help that soul onwards, whether that is for liberation, or for incarnation in another body. If we do not complete the rituals properly, the soul may not find the transition it seeks, and even be caught as a ghost between the worlds.” Leaning forward quickly, Gupta takes some ash from the fire and streaks some across his forehead, protectively. “But if we do our job properly, the soul continues without hindrance."

I sat and watched this primal scene: families arriving with their departed loved ones, some glimpsing the Ganges for the first time in their lives. The resonant clanking of temple bells, the low tones of Vedic chanting.

“The bodies don’t seem to smell unpleasant,” I remark.

Gupta appears pleased at my observation. “This means we have done our job well. We use ghee for this purpose, which also raises the temperature of the pyre significantly. Wood is not really hot enough by itself. And then a mixture of many other things: sesame seeds, barley, balsam resin, camphor, turmeric powder, and saffron. All these add fragrance. Blending them is an art.”

I ask Gupta about his childhood. Was it not strange to be around death, even as a boy? Did the bodies never frighten him? Didn’t the prospect of spending his life amongst mourners depress him?

“Death is not strange,” he says, with an authority I suspect few men could muster. “And I was never fearful of it. After school I would just come down here to help. I would stoke the fires, and watch the bodies burn. One thing we learn very young in the Dom Raja is to accept what will come to us all. How can we not when we see the bodies turning to ash and hear the cracking of the skulls as the fire does its work. In this city of death it is our dharma (path) to stand at the central point. King or peasant, Brahmin or outcaste, all pass before our eyes in the end. We consider this a privilege.”

1. The Name of Ram (God) is Truth. [^]

2. Mahabharata III.85-94 (Bombay Edition) [^]

3. 325 Diana Eck. [^]

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