Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Burning bodies

Death in Varanasi is to be celebrated, both for the Hindus who are lucky enough to die and be cremated there, and for the caste of fire men who manage the cremations. For me, Varanasi is all of India: ancient, frightening, warm, steeped in sad caste traditions, entrepreneurial, occasionally horrifying, sacred, and profane, the line between private and public living blown to bits.

Take dying. Just dipping into the Ganges is enough to wash away a lifetime of sins. If, as a Hindu, you’re lucky enough to die in Varanasi, the holiest of holy Ganges cities, and wealthy enough to pay for a purification and cremation on one of the burning ghats along the river, you’re liberated from the horrors of reincarnation and your family celebrates your bliss. Your body is sunk into the Ganges (whose water people DRINK) and it’s a happy ending for you.

Not for your widowed wife. Because in traditional Hinduism, men who die and leave wives behind aren’t just dying – they are abandoning their wives to the world, and those widows are outcast, because they must have done something horrible to deserve that fate. Though the traditional suicide-by-climbing-on-the-funeral-pyre-of-your-husband has mostly disappeared, widows are still often abandoned by their families for the shame of being widowed, and turn to begging and prostitution to support themselves. Being widowed carries as bad or worse of a social stigma as being divorced. (Note that when wives die, husbands are free to remarry and start over, collecting more dowry, which is one of the root causes of violence against women and bride burning, which is a whole ‘nother story.) Which is horrifying.

Now there are several local organizations in Varanasi that serve as orphanages for widows, taking them in and providing shelter and trying to build a sustainable life for widows. Life after death, if you will. Which is wonderful.

Anyways, back to dying. So dying in Varanasi is auspicious and happy. But touching dead bodies and otherwise dealing with death is very, very taboo. So only very low-caste Dalits (Untouchables) are relegated to the task of preparing the dead for cremation, building the pyres, carrying the dead to the river, bathing them in the Ganges and lighting the fires. The caste system, no matter what anybody says about India and its progress and its vaulted democracy, is ALIVE. Which is horrifying.

But the Untouchables in Varanasi have capitalized on Hinduism’s desire to die on the Ganges, and have instituted a tax on all cremations. The tax goes to the head of the caste, who has a giant home on the river bank, a showy display of wealth among the squalor and quite a social statement from an Untouchable. Which is pretty great. Of course, there is no indication that he shares that wealth among others in his caste, who are doing the literal dirty work. Not so great, and yet another perpetuation of the system which has forced them to work with dead bodies all day.

Back to dying.

All night and day in Varanasi, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, men come barreling down the tiny, cow-strewn streets of the Old City chanting and ringing bells, bearing bamboo pallets of dead people bound in orange silks. They eventually land at either Manikarnika ghat or Harishchandra ghat, where wood is bought – sandalwood is the most expensive – for the burning. Priests say a blessing, and a male relative in attendance submerges the body in the river (more than 100 points of entry for raw sewage into the Ganges, in addition to all these bodies. Chew on that) or scoops river water over it. Then the body is placed on the pyre, where a fire man stokes the flames with a long bamboo pole. Due to the dampness, it can take awhile for a fire to get going, and the body smokes for some time. It takes about 3 hours for a body to burn fully. Sometimes the fire men have to use an accelerant to get the flames going.

But a stubborn fire isn’t the only delay. Sometimes, the traffic of bodies at the ghats gets too high, and after ceremoniously running through the Old City, the bodies of the dead are left waiting in the sun before they can be cremated. Discretion is nonexistent. Attendees leave the bodies scattered along the ghats in the middle of pedestrian traffic until their turn to dunk and burn, orange silks flapping in the humid breeze, goats and cows wandering past, people looking indifferently past them to the action on the lit pyres. Sometimes the dead don’t burn at an even pace, and an overenthusiastic fire man clumsily poking at the blaze can send a spine with a skull attached tumbling to the sidewalk, while mourners look on in dismay.

Gabe and I almost died ourselves when we saw this. Lucky we were in Varanasi. What is the appropriate response to the Pez dispenser remains of a human repeatedly rolling off a burning stack of wood as a boy with a bamboo pole keeps trying to stack it on top? Then another limb of unknown provenance fell off the pyre. When we finally got up to leave the ghat, smoke and the smell of the dead burning our eyes, the silks unwound from another body stacked on yet another pile of wood, and an expressionless face stared up at us.

Not 20 feet from the pyres, on a separate section of the ghat, washermen were beating laundry against the steps leading down into the Ganges, totally indifferent to the charred carcasses being sunk beside them. Another ghat down, kids were diving off platforms into the water, just being kids. Another ghat down, men were brushing their teeth with scoops of Ganges. Another ghat down, buffalo were cooling off in the river. Another ghat down, women in damp saris were combing their wet hair, regrouping after a ceremonious dip. Yet out of respect for the dead, tourists are asked not to take any pictures of the burnings – which they are welcome to watch, and where, of course, hustlers are selling disturbingly close-up action shots and postcards of the pyres for a few rupees apiece.

Filth. Money. Spiritual cleansing. Play. Death. Animal. And celebration.


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