can be easy to forget, as you pick your way through the ash
and crackling embers of Varanasi’s cremation site, that this is in
fact a place of celebration. From our boat moored on the Ganges in
the fading golden-hour sun, the heaps of burning wood which scorch
the air do at first seem morbid, even terrifying. And in Varanasi,
the city at the heart of Hinduism, death is inescapable. From the
piles of flaming tinder narrowly concealing burning corpses to the
countless human remains at the bottom of the Ganges, mortality
moves through the air as densely as the incense rising from the
temples, or the heat of the September sun.
To visit this sacred city is to confront a reality that is so
often pushed to the back of our minds in favour of more palatable
thoughts. Yet here there is none of the bleak misery that goes hand
in hand with bereavement across most of the world. Instead a
family’s mourning is channeled into joy that a loved one is
beginning their journey to a better place. In the Hindu religion,
to be cremated on Varanasi’s Manikarnika or Harishchandra Ghat is a
rite of passage; a one-way ticket to Nirvana without the process of
reincarnation that the rest of us must tussle through. Sitting in a
cracked lilac boat on the grey waters as the eternal flames of the
cremation sites licked the sky, we learned from our friend Ballah
that when a father dies his sons must shave their heads in respect.
As you wander the bustling and sunny Ghats, this ritual is easy to
spot; portly barbers hack away hair with rusty shaving knives,
while bald men cut a striking figure, appearing like monks in white
robes with their shiny, hairless skulls.
It is a privilege, Ballah tells us, to burn away in Varanasi.
Only around 25,000 bodies are cremated on the Ghats each year.
Perhaps that explains the strange air that fills the place, one of
tranquil celebration. “It is beauty,” says Ballah, “we come into
this world alone, we die alone. We worry, we work, we cry and this
is how we end; ash.” I ask him if it scares him, to think of his
own self vanishing into smog on the banks of the city he grew up
in. “Scared? No! It is joyful, it is all I want.” Try as we might
to feel just as jaunty in the face of all this brazen death, we
came to accept that this mindset, so unique to Hindus, was
admirable but completely alien to us. Varanasi is a city that pulls
you in and forces you to look death straight in the eye. Yet it is
also a place of such life. Boats of pastel pink, green and blue bob
on the waters, cows and goats painted orange stroll the banks of
the river and music calls out from every corner of the city at all
times. The Sadhus (holy men) decorate the steps with their painted
faces, long beards and garlands of flowers, penetrating you with
their heavy gaze. The Ganges itself is often referred to as
‘Mother, Brother, Father, Son, Lover’, and as people dive in,
splash, sing and spin in its murky water, it is clear how much joy
it brings to the city, and to those Hindus who have travelled here
just to touch it.
Varanasi is not an easy place to visit. Stiflingly hot in the
summer months, it can at times resemble a pressure cooker in which
death, noise, religion, crowds and smoke are all ready to come
bursting out in one long, defeating blare. Any place where your
average day combines a morning yoga class and a wander around the
market with a cremation sighting and a thousand-strong crowd
chanting prayers to a snake god could not be called average. But
like so much of India, once you let Varanasi wash over you in all
its staggering glory, you can find yourself utterly seduced by it.
It is a place where tradition hums and where history is tangible.
Each day ends with Agni Pooja, the worship to fire. Watching from
our boat what felt like the entire city sing along with five
priests in praise of Lord Shiva (Great God), all of the festivity
of India could be taken in at once. Varanasi encompasses the
country’s propensity to meld the sullen with the celebratory. Death
and festivity are joined in this holy city. Candles burn, street
food steam fuses with incense smoke, life melts away into the sky,
and all seems just as it should be.
The cremation sites are places heady with atmosphere, but Indian
women are not permitted to attend the burnings. The ceremony should
be calm and include no tears, Ballah told us, and women have been
responsible in the past for showing distress during the ritual. So
we were startled when we were asked to walk through the burning
bodies by families ‘for luck’. This was because we were from the
West, something which is still revered by many locals. We politely
sidestepped this request.