“I feel something,” you say flatly. You stand next to Maeva on a stone wall and stared into the flames.
“What do you feel?” she asks.
“Dunno. I guess what one might expect to feel watching human bodies burn.” There are four funeral pyres. Shortish, around two feet high. Neatly stacked logs of whatever wood the family can afford. Feet sticking out the end. Little toes blackened and curled like burnt sausages.
“Go on,” Maeva says.
“That’s it. Well, I guess it makes me think about my father’s funeral.” He didn’t burn. He was put into the ground on another misty day. His face was pink and rosy—clownish, almost. Vaudeville makeup. Didn’t look a thing like himself.
The faces before you are black. Features impossible to distinguish. Just charred, caked flesh that cracks below the seared crowns of heads. Partly bald. Some of the hair has not yet recoiled from the heat. The skin around it looks wet, blistered.
Before the fire, the bodies are immersed in the Ganges. Splashed by each member of the family five times, for the five elements. And before that, they’re been smeared with ghee. And some have sandalwood powder poured over them. The bodies have been lovingly adorned with golden, red, or white shining material. Golden for the elderly, red for women, white for men.
You can always hear them coming. The shouting of mantras in the streets. The pallbearers—or really, four family members each shouldering a corner of the bamboo stretcher—came upon you quickly. They rush by and a fast clip, and the body goes a bouncing.
“Do you think it’s heavy?” Maeva asks.
“Nah. It’s not a coffin. Just a couple bamboo poles and a 90-pound corpse.”
It isn’t eerie. You don’t feel anything like deep reverence or respect for the dead. The bodies are as common as fruit carts. The pallbearers bomb down the road, competing for space with the cycle rickshaws, the motorcycles, the dogs, the pedestrians, beggars, and guys dumping trash outside chai shops.
There on the street, you see a family preparing a woman’s body. She is fat. And young. You wonder what killed her.
There above the pyres, there are groups of men standing shoulder to shoulder, watching the flames. “No ladies allowed here,” says one of them.
There are two reasons for “no women.” First, women are too emotional; if she cries, she will obstruct the soul’s path. The soul, presumably, will be too burdened by her feelings. Second, it is a way of controlling against sati, a since-abolished tradition of widows throwing themselves live upon the flames of the deceased.
There, above the men, are more pyres. The Brahmins burn high. The Untouchables, down low. Near the Brahmin pyres, a chai shop.
Here, there, everywhere, some goats. Some cows and water buffalo. Hordes of dogs. The dogs are looking to nibble the charred remains of some unlucky fellow too poor to afford enough wood to burn his body completely.
Your new friend explains to you, “On men, it is the chest that fails to burn. On women, the hips. What is left is put into the Ganga, where the fish will eat him. It is the life cycle. Reincarnation.”
“But the dogs sometimes get a piece?”
The man smiles and nods. Sometimes, yes. But better the fishes.
“And there are six types of people who do not get burned,” he continues. Pregnant women, lepers, smallpox victims, little children less than ten years old, Saddhus, and people who die from snakebites. These people, it is believed, are already pure—or suffering enough. One or the other.
“So what happens to them?”
A rock gets tied to the neck, and the body is floated on the Ganges until it sinks. Then the fish eat. You learn this man has lost two infants already—recently.
“I am a sad man. But I am okay. This is why my hair is short. When person in the family dies, a man will shave his hair away.” All but the rat-tail in the center of the back of the head—a tribute to Krishna. Weird, that little rat tail.
Maeva asks, “Is it true that after the burning, a man from the family must take a bamboo stick and smash open the skull—to release the soul?”
There, around the animals, are children running, playing, flying kites. Some of them sell candles, flowers, postcards. Some of them sell nothing. They just jump into your lap without asking and cough in your face, upper lips covered in crystallized snot. Maeva takes a photo of them, since pictures of the pyres are prohibited.
Around you, piles of shit, beetle pan stains, plastic chai cups, mosquitoes, and endless kite strings that have a way of tripping everyone. You wouldn’t think it a place for funerals. It is as noisy as any urban street.
Not 50 meters away, a family bathes or washes its laundry. Men stand in old, brown underwear and soap their bodies vigorously. Skin and bones. Prodigious bellies. Everyone. This river, after all, is holy.
“I never have knee pain,” one man tells you later. “Because every morning I walk next to the Ganga. Ganga purifies, makes healthy my knees.”
Bottle that up and sell it.
Oh wait, they already do. There, on corners, are vendors selling clear plastic containers in various sizes, so Indians can fill them with holy water and take it back home.
Hindus are a crazy bunch. No madder than Christians or Muslims or any other religious group, in your opinion. Certainly a pious bunch. They block the streets every morning, carrying candles and sweets and flowers and ten rupee notes for donation. Foreheads are smeared in orange, red, white bindis. They waddle like cattle to a feeding, feet slipping in dung and mud puddles. The queue for a mile for Ganesh’s birthday “party.” They wear their best saris in every color of the rainbow. And they stare deliberately—sometimes proudly—into the lens of your camera.
Varanasi is the best place to die. It’s one of the seven holy Hindu cities in India. It is believed that if you die in Varanasi and have a proper burial, you will have better karma for the next life—or perhaps, even, escape the cycle of reincarnation. Every day, there are somewhere between 60 and 80 funerals per day on the south ghat alone. Another burning fruit cart.
You wonder what the other tourists think. You wonder if they are as callus about death as you are. Then you see one of them kneel down before Shiva’s fire—one which has been kept burning for Shiva-knows-how-many-centuries—and say a prayer. Guess not.
“Excuse me. Good place to watch up there,” a man points at the top of the old electric crematorium, no longer active. “Not for women here.”
Alright, alright. You get it. You’re clearly too emotional.