Early in the morning, we crossed the ghat, where fires were still smoldering, gazed, with our Western minds, into the Ganges (Ganga). ~Mary Oliver
The Perpetual Flame
We stood in the midst of the swirling smoke, smoke the color of brushed aluminum battering our bodies, endured the heat waves crashing into our sweat-soaked flesh, breathed deeply the carbon atoms released by the ravenous flames, flames crackling, hissing, spitting intertwined atoms of charred wood and scorched human flesh into the universe.
The flame birthing the pyres has an ancient tail. It has been burning continuously for 3,500 years, ignited close to the time prehistory became history, started its sacred burn at the hand of Lord Shiva before it was given as a gift to man. It flickered to life during the empire of the pyramid building Egyptians, was breathing before the Greek’s invented philosophy, danced enigmatic before the Romans ran riot over their known world, helped people enter Nirvana before Siddhartha sat beneath the Bodhi tree and became the Buddha where he outlined the eightfold path to enlightenment, was granting people access to the afterlife before The Christ was born and hung on a tree opening the gates to the Christian Heaven, was consuming people long before Muhammad formed a loose band of desert wanders that would be consumed by the faith that became Islam.
The sole purpose of the venerable flame is to ignite the funeral pyre. It initiates the process 200 to 300 times a day and has released an estimated 200 million souls from the cycle of life and death. It consumes flesh in the now and releases spirit into the afterlife. To be cremated in Varanasi is to achieve Moksha, a reprieve from the cycle of life and death: You don’t have to endure continued rebirth into the world, you don’t collect 200 rupees, you go directly to Nirvana.
Not all Hindu’s receive the benefit of the flame. If the person who died was a child or pregnant woman or a leper or a Sadhu or death by cobra bite, the body is wrapped in a shroud, weighted down with rocks, and deposited whole in the Mother Ganga river where it will swim with the fishes until nature reclaims the remains.
A Visceral Process
In the West, we sanitize death, distance ourselves from body preparation by paying someone else to manage the deceased. Death feels outside of life rather than a normal and necessary part of the life cycle. Death frequently takes place in an antiseptic hospital after which the body is picked up by attendants from a mortuary where it is cleaned, perfumed, embalmed (the body can’t smell of decay), dressed in fancy clothing, put on display in a ridiculously expensive casket for a couple of days. The body may be put on ice and the process delayed if the time of death was inconvenient for the living.
There is a last viewing after which the casket is sealed then taken for a ride in a fancy car until it magically reappears at a designated gravesite in the cemetery. There the beloveds may choose to not experience the lowering into the earth because that part of the process is deemed too emotional.
The process is very different in India. I find it to be significantly more intimate. The deceased is washed in their own home or in a holy river, wrapped in a white shroud, placed upon a large bed of wood, and cremated all within 24 hours of dying. Most of the ritual is carried out by a Brahmin priest with the assistance of the male family members.Culturally, women are barred from the ritual. The eldest son is charged with igniting the funeral pyre with a tongue of the ancient flame. Once the cremation is complete, the ashes are washed into the river where they will mingle with the elements for all time.
This was the second time I had experienced cremation at the ghats. The first time was in Kathmandu. There I was across the river from the ritual and only able to really see up close through the long lens of my camera. Here we stood 20 yards from a pyre, close enough to feel the heat of the insatiable flames, close enough for our clothes to absorb the scent of the smoke, close enough that each breath we breathed included both a healthy dose of smoke.
The flavor was acrid, pungent. But with subtle hints of sweet just below the surface, deeper still a feeble bitterness. Both sweet and bitter were only noticeable when I slowly swirled the texture over my teeth and tongue. The acrid I knew was the wood ash, a sensation I experienced at the edge of countless campfires. The sweet and bitter were the flavors of the souls intermingled with the smoke. The good Karma infused with the fruit they bore in life was sweet. The bitter flavor from those souls fighting their own bad Karma because they were cursed to another cycle of suffering.
With every inhalation, the human souls filled our lungs, souls slowly being freed when flesh was consumed by the rasping breath of the 10 pyres burning. With every inhalation, we absorbed soul fragments of the newly cremated and from the previous millions floating in the air for centuries, souls not yet released from the cycle, souls seeking their next incarnation. The souls we breathed in will mingle with ours, be our companions for the rest of our days.
A couple of cows and a half dozen dogs, all short-haired strays roamed the area between land and water, constant motion, a dance with steps I could not decipher. One sat alone in the water fending off incursions from the other curs into its personal space. Five against one. Teeth were bared. Vicious snarling defined a perimeter. The loner was never dislodged. Why did it not leave for more peaceful surroundings?
Sometimes, the insatiable flame fails to consume the entire body leaving chunks of marrow laden bone, possibly scraps of flesh. Those chunks are picked up by a relative using sticks to form tongs, ensuring no human contact, and thrown into the Ganga River. The dogs ferret the chunks out of the water and complete the process started by the fire. The lone dog was in the best place for a meal and we saw it gnawing a bone fragment the size of my fist. Some may find this to be behavior on the far side of grossness. I must admit, it rings true with me.
Panning for Gold
Gold is a favorite investment in India where there are an estimated 20,000 tons in Indian households. Many of the women being cremated are adorned with some of the gold they wore in life. Those intense fires consuming flesh are only hot enough to melt the gold. When the ashes are washed into the Ganga bits of gold are included.
Wading waist deep in the water at the foot of the ghat were two slender very dark Indian men wearing what amounted to little more than white loincloths or they may have been dhotis wrapped high or tighty whities. I could not tell because their garments were mostly submerged. Each man held a large, slightly dished pan they dipped deep into the water pulling up sediment and water. They twirled until the light sediment was washed away leaving the heavier particulate behind. They were panning for gold.
The prospects must have been fairly lucrative because the two of them stood in the polluted water, in water where human remains and human excrement must have been swirling around their legs. That was a bit too visceral for my comfort.
Experiencing another cultures end of life rituals makes one take pause for a long, hard, deep look into the norms in which they were raised. At least it does for me. Travel has shown me there are many ‘right’ ways to live life.
As you can probably tell, I am not enamored with the cultural funeral norms in the US which treat death as something occurring outside the life cycle than an intimate part of the life cycle. My preference for final resting is more closely aligned with the visceral process in India…and then some. Many would define my hope for after death as barbaric.
When I finally die, I want my naked shell to be placed on a red rock escarpment exposed to the sun, the wind, the elements. If not there then in a shallow earthen grave covered by the thinnest red layer of Earth. I want Coyote to dig and unearth my carcass, set the table for a feast shared with insects, microbes, iguanas. If I am blessed by the gods, the majestic, red-faced Turkey Vulture will have a place at the table.
I imagine the great bird satiating its hunger then taking to Sky. The massive wings will open, catch the rising thermals, lift it free of Earth. It will ascend, ascend and carry my soul into the heavens. Or just shit it out and let it drops 1000s of feet until reuniting with Mother Earth in a hearty splat.
Further Reading: https://www.afar.com/magazine/varanasi-indias-soul-city