Facing Death in India’s holiest city, Varanasi

Starting into his eyes that appeared to shrivel into his face like two black opals in a sinkhole, he placed a hand silently on my wrist. A hand I’m almost certain was cold.

‘I am the one who does the burning of the bodies.’

His voice sounded like his soul had departed it years ago. There was nothing in it. He wore an emotionless face. It had lips that moved but the eyes refused to blink.

‘Whatever is left after the 3 hours, sometimes man’s chest, sometimes lady’s hip, we put it in the Ganga. The fish, they will finish it. They like the humans bodies.’

This man was describing Antyesti, the funeral rites for the deceased in Hinduism. For Hindu devotees, being cremated on the banks of the Ma Ganga, or Ganges River as it’s known to many outside India, is the ultimate departure from this Earth and a way to achieve moksha, a release from the cycle of rebirth. It is believed that through being cremated by the holy eternal fire and having what is left behind disposed of in the Ganga, the soul can proceed straight to Nirvana.

‘There is a hospital just behind. The peoples who are old or sick, they come to die here. Then I collect the bodies and burn them.’ The man continued.

‘Some of them are so poor they cannot afford the wood they will be burned on. They spend their last days begging for money so they can be burned at these holy ghats.’

There was a flicker of pride in the way that this man spoke of his part in the rituals. I got the sense that this was a duty the man was  proud to be part of.

Manikarnika Ghat cremation site at Varanasi, photograph by Michal Huniewicz
Antyesti, the funeral rites on the banks of Ganga is the ultimate departure from this Earth and a way to achieve moksha, a release from the cycle of rebirth.

Then it happened when I was enjoying a delicious coconut and papaya lassi in a small shop down one of Varanasi’s many small alleyways. The first time I saw a dead body. It was wrapped in a white sheet and being carried on a stretcher made of bamboo by 4 young men. Garlands of yellow marigolds draped across it. The young men weaved effortlessly through the crowds of tourists, locals and animals who were all casually going about their daily activities. No-one so much as offered up a second glance in their direction.

You see, death has a place in Varanasi. It is woven into the fabric of the daily lives of the living who appear just as undeterred by its presence than that of the nation’s holy cow. It lurks around every corner; in the eyes of the child begging for food or money, in the wounds of the street dogs fighting over the last scrap of food that one managed to pull from a discarded newspaper, in the lifeless mutterings of the starved old beggar.

SailingInTheGang-LucyPlummer
I don’t think it’s death that people are afraid of. Somewhere under the consciousness of our daily living, from the moment we are born we have the awareness that one day we all have to meet our end. It’s the bit in the middle that makes us most afraid.

Where I’m from, we rarely encounter death so frankly. Perhaps it’s ‘more civilised’ to keep life and death so separate from the other. Perhaps it’s easier for those left behind to deal with. Perhaps it would serve as an unwelcome reminder of the inevitable. Whatever the reason, it’s typically kept hidden away from view.

Grief however, or the aftershocks of death felt by the loved ones of the departed, those are different. Those are universal. But confronting death so head on, for me, this was a new experience altogether.

What surprised me most about my encounter with death in Varanasi was how, dare I say it, normal witnessing it felt to me. Even stood at the burning ghats and watching as the ceremonies begun I couldn’t avert my eyes. Not for a moment. Even when the flames died out, after around 3 hours, and whatever was remaining was scattered in the holy Ganga, still my eyes were transfixed.

So I came to my own conclusion based on my perceptions of how death is handled in the way that I am accustomed to. I don’t think it’s death that people are afraid of. Somewhere under the consciousness of our daily living, from the moment we are born we have the awareness that one day we all have to meet our end. It’s the bit in the middle that makes us most afraid. To arrival at our final hour just to realise that we never actually lived. I think that’s the part that is feared more than death itself and what makes death so uncomfortable to live with. Afterall, life without death is meaningless as ultimately death gives life meaning. Seeing death in Varanasi was just a not-so-subtle reminder not to forget that.

I travelled to Varanasi in October 2016. The edited version of this post was originally published on The Better India. 

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