As Though We Were Immortal

By Namit Arora | Jan 2012 | Comments


Some travel impressions prompted by the living and the dead of Varanasi, India.

VaranasiGhats22In early 2006, I was on a train to Varanasi when my mother called from Jaipur. Terrorists had just hit Varanasi with explosions at multiple sites, including at the train station; many had died. Since I was going there as a tourist, she urged me to postpone the trip and get off earlier. I was traveling with my partner and two white American friends, both on their first visit to India. They seemed rattled enough and I worried about their safety. What if Hindu-Muslim riots broke out? We were ten nighttime hours away from Varanasi, so we had to decide fast.

The reality of the event sunk in further when an NDTV reporter and her camera crew got on the train. With time to kill, she began quizzing tired and bemused passengers about their take on the news. And she did so in an overexcited style that seemed to dominate live reporting in India. When she thrust the mic at me, I could only mutter something about my worry for my companions.

I persuaded my fellow travelers to continue. The terrorists had already done their deed; Varanasi was likely the safest place to visit now. Worst case, we could stay holed up in our hotel. Truth be told, I was also drawn to this unbidden frisson of travel. When we arrived in the morning, we found a part of the train station cordoned off by the police. I could see blotches of red on the ground. The driver of the taxi we took into town had witnessed the explosions: flying body parts, screams, the ensuing melee. He had helped take the injured to the hospital. But our decision to not abort our journey turned out to be a good one—the city remained calm and we moved around freely. I felt proud of my fellow citizens for being so mature about the situation. It was my first time in Varanasi as an adult, and the place did not disappoint.

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VaranasiGhats41Located on the western bank of the Ganga, Varanasi (or Benares, Kashi), is among the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities and one of the seven sacred cities of the Hindus. Early Vedic religion took root here. It was the capital of the kingdom of Kashi in the Buddha's time (6th century BCE), who gave his first post-enlightenment sermon at nearby Sarnath (he apparently avoided Varanasi, already a stronghold of Brahmanism). Varanasi has seen many reversals of fortune over the millennia, even as it retained some fame for its muslin and silk fabrics, sculpture, perfumes, and ivory art. 

Xuanzang, the famous Chinese traveler, visited here in c. 635 CE. The city, he wrote, "is densely populated. The families are very rich, and in the dwellings are objects of rare value. The disposition of the people is soft and humane, and they are earnestly given to study ... The climate is soft, the crops abundant, the [fruit] trees flourishing, and the underwood thick in every place." He estimated that the city had about 100 temples with 3,000 priests, who mostly honored Shiva—one of whose statues he saw as "full of grandeur and majesty". Some followers of this sect, he wrote, "cut off their hair, others tie their hair in a knot, and go naked, without clothes; they cover their bodies with ashes, and by the practice of all sorts of austerities they seek to escape from birth and death." In the early 11th century, the great Persian scholar, Al-Beruni, visited India and called Varanasi a leading center of the "Hindu sciences".

VaranasiGhats34But Varanasi declined in the early centuries of Muslim rule (from 1194). It was attacked by raiders and its learned men fled to other parts of India. In the 16th century, Emperor Akbar brought relief and support to the city. In 1660, Frenchman Francois Bernier wrote about visiting this "celebrated seat of learning" and, in a letter to a friend, curiously called Varanasi the "Athens of India". He described its guru-disciple model of schooling, with 4-15 disciples per guru, who met "in private houses, and principally in the gardens of the suburbs, which the rich merchants permit them to occupy." The few who pursue such study do so "slowly, and without much to distract their attention, while eating their kichery, a mingled mess of vegetables supplied to them by the care of rich merchants". Bernier mentioned "a large hall ... entirely filled" with books on "philosophy, works on medicine written in verse, and many other kinds of books." Nevertheless, the students he met seemed to him of "indolent temper, and strangers to the excitement which the possibility of advancement in an honorable profession produces among the members of European universities."

VaranasiGhats10Outsiders have long been drawn to Varanasi's ghats, which are lined with shrines, temples, dormitories, former royal houses, devotees, animals, and more. Varanasi now receives over a million pilgrims each year. Many hope to die here in old age, or at least to be cremated here. Still a center of Hindu learning—and of orthodoxy—it now also has three universities and a dozen colleges. It remains famous for its silk fabrics, including brocades with gold and silver thread-work. We visited a Muslim mohalla known for its guild of traditional weavers, who work with manual wooden looms inside their homes. They invited us in, explained the process, fed us tea; we bought some of their exquisite creations as gifts for people back home. The narrow streets bustled with children enthralled by us exotic strangers and were only too eager to be photographed.

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VaranasiGhats49My most memorable experience of Varanasi was the visit to its two burning ghats. The bigger one, Manikarnika, hosts up to 200 cremations a day; the other is Harishchandra. The process, as a cremation ground worker explained to me, is simple and unadorned. Above the ghats are stacks of firewood. The family of the deceased, according to their means, chooses one of the funeral packages on offer—each with a certain grade and quantity of firewood, sandalwood or its sawdust, straw, ghee (clarified butter), and other ritualistic paraphernalia—along with a priest's services. It struck me that many victims of the bomb blasts, too, must have ended up here.

Once the pyre is set up, four men close to the deceased carry the corpse in on a bamboo stretcher supported on their shoulders. They transfer the corpse, wrapped in plain cloth, onto the pyre and pay their final respects (women do so at home and traditionally do not attend funerals, but this is changing in urban India). If the deceased lived to be over eighty, there may even be muted celebration and gaiety. The priest begins the rituals and the chanting—part of the antim sanskaar, or last rites, which vary by region, caste, and other social factors.

VaranasiGhats46The chief mourner, usually the eldest son or brother or the husband, sprinkles ghee on the pyre, and is then handed a torch to set it alight—an intensely emotional moment for most Hindus. The first fire, mukhagni, is ritually lit at the mouth. A funerary worker might add more ghee or straw to ensure the fire picks up and burns evenly. This worker is usually from the Dalit caste Dom (or Chandala; many of its members, like the Romani, also migrated centuries ago to the Middle-East and Europe and have a long legacy of musical acumen). When the corpse is significantly burned, an important ritual called kapal kriya is initiated: the chief mourner is given a pole for a quick jab at the skull, breaking it and releasing the atman to continue its transmigration.

If a family can afford only the cheapest funeral package—or none, in which case they rely on help from the government—the corpse is burned in stages on a small pyre: the middle part burns first; the head and the legs stick out until they are nudged in deftly by a pole after the middle part collapses. It takes about 250 Kgs of firewood and three hours to incinerate a corpse. After the burning is complete, the chief mourner and others douse the smoldering pyre with water from the river. They gather the ashes and fragments of bones in an urn, and go down the ghats to empty it in the Ganga. Dom men wait there with wire nets to sift through the remains, hoping to find bits of gold from a tooth or a nose ring.

VaranasiGhats47Curiously, a subset of Hindus ought not to be cremated here—sadhus, lepers, children under five, pregnant women, and snake-bite victims are to be consigned directly to the sacred river. Their corpses, it is said, do not need further purification by fire, so they are taken in a boat to the middle of the Ganga, tied to a stone, and sunk to the bottom, becoming food for fishes and river turtles. Some of these corpses, or parts thereof, later float up to the surface, spooking unsuspecting tourists. The liturgy of death in Varanasi is not for the squeamish.

In 1984, as a much cheaper, quicker, and more eco-friendly alternative, the government installed an electric crematorium near the burning ghat but only a few use it. It has come to be seen as a poor man's choice that interferes with key rituals like kapal kriya. Funerary rites are so central to most people's religio-cultural identity that they are loathe to tinker with or abandon them—and Varanasi is not exactly rippling with tradition breakers. Moreover, the crematorium breaks down at times and is subject to the city's frequent power outages.

Watching the spectacle on the burning ghats from a balcony above, I felt a liberating calm visit me, the kind that steadies and concentrates the mind. What better way to peer into nothingness and to see our common fate, laid out evocatively in the Book of Common Prayer: from earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Why, there is nothing morbid about death. It is a simple fact of life that should inform our daily choices and opinions. Yet, the greatest wonder, as Yudhisthira says in the Mahabharata, is that "each day death strikes, and we live as though we were immortal."


All photos by Namit Arora. More pictures from Varanasi?   More writing by Namit Arora?



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