The smell of faeces, food and faith hangs over the network of narrow streets behind the ghats of Varanasi. With the agility of a mountain goat and the reflexes of an alert dog, I manoeuvre past cows, vagrant dogs and people—all self-assuredly occupying their space in inconceivably tapering lanes.
Astonishingly, all the things and all the people who fill Varanasi comfortably find a place in its bizarre street system. With bovine blessings caked under my feet and nonchalant looks from locals bouncing off my skin, I too head for the spots that have invoked travellers’ curiosity for many years—the burning ghats of Manikarnika and Harishchandra.
Northern ‘ghats’: A view of the river front. Photo: Supriya Sehgal
Some say Varanasi is as old as history itself—the city where the Hindu god Shiva himself resided. To breathe your last in Varanasi is to break away from the cycle of rebirth. This destination for death allows for special “passing through” and has for centuries seen inexorable interest from those with leanings towards moksha. The pyres, burning continuously, stopping not even for a moment, not even at night, testify to this. They say that almost 250 bodies are accommodated at the two ghats. When the river swells in the monsoon, the ceremony shifts to the streets, with no change in numbers.
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One would think that proximity to death would bring up only hushed inquisitive questions and a respectful distance from tourists. Here, though, is a most bizarre spectacle—little guide boys nudge and tug at the tourists to offer information, barbers dexterously shave mourning heads, dogs sniff and scratch the ashes foraging for remaining flesh, slim boys—“tanned until roasted”—jump into the water looking for money, parades of death spill in one after the other, pyres burn with equal vigour and briskness to accommodate more, and this large carnival-like scenario completely overshadows any grief which would aptly fit the sequence.
On top of that, the desire not to have to face the camera in the presence of death is thrown to the winds. Though not allowed to click pictures themselves, tourists are ushered brazenly right next to the pyres for a closer angle. The detachment and indifference of the mood belies my expectation of an extraordinary insight. I realize how socially habituated we are in our relationship with death—and this spectacle in Varanasi leaves me with an unrecognizable feeling of deep shallowness. The reality of Varanasi challenges our conventions of death as a colossal event.
Despite the mundane backdrop of the last rites, one cannot but be awed by the co-existence of death and life at such close proximity. The lanes close to the burning ghats brim with attractively displayed items for the last rites. The ingredients for the final journey feed the existence of many—flower sellers, barbers, ladder-makers, priests, wood merchants, and many who sell other ingredients. The realization that the business of death feeds the life on the ghats becomes a profound thought for me.
The last photographs
Imran is a man of few words but he smiles constantly—probably because those who face his camera can’t. He has a significant role in the journey of the departed: He takes the last picture, just before the deceased is placed on the pyre. “The last photograph” exists as a flourishing trade, he tells me with assuredness. Relatives huddle together near the pyre for that last commemoration. Imran doesn’t know whether they do so for one last memory, or for a credible claim on the inheritance. The reasons might be many, but this extraordinary duty is entrusted to him.
When asked if he thinks it is a rather morbid occupation, he answers with cheerful resignation about the need to live. He affirms his special status by proudly claiming that he is one of the only two photographers on the ghats who do this. We walk together through the lanes, where there is more proud declaration of his skill in the form of large frames, with samples of these photographs in various shops. I cannot but agree that he has become better over the years, as we talk about cameras and lighting.
The only people who have the authority to light the pyre on the ghats are the descendants of the legendary “Kalu Dom”—whose task was to light the pyres and take care of the cremation grounds. It is said that the famous King Harishchandra worked in the cremation grounds, under the supervision of Kalu Dom. There are almost 500 Doms today, working in a hierarchy of chiefs and lower-rung workers.
Their propinquity to death starts early in life—handing over straw to the family member who lights the pyre, maintaining the cremation ghats, cleaning up and other daily chores. This fetches them a tidy sum.
The current chief, Choudhary, a hospitable man, garbles the tale of Doms with his paan-stained mouth and leads me to the terrace of his house, which has two majestic tigers built to mark it as the house of the “King of Doms”. I leave, satiated with stories and lassi, but have to bear disapproving looks from people after I step out from his house. The owner of the guest house where I am staying insists on sprinkling Ganga jal on my head—to purify me from the visit to the “Dom’s house”.
In the midst of all the animated viewing of the most basic system on earth—life and death—an old ashram stands darkly by the water. It stands in its own aura of grief, nudging at the darkest hollows of the human mind. Here, a few widows, some almost 95 years old and barely conscious of their surroundings, wait for death. Of all the truths to be found in Varanasi, this is one of the starkest—that these women chose this life in their youth and have been waiting to die since then. Dependent on donations, their lives have crumbled into heart-rending futility.
As mystifying as this rendezvous with death might be for many, it’s something people here are most accustomed to. It might seem inane to celebrate their unknowing valour, but one must grant them respect for handling the irony of living besides the dead.
The ‘ghats’ have death and religion all around. The experience can be overwhelming for children.
Varanasi’s tiny and crowded streets can be difficult to negotiate, though help will often be provided.
Although homosexuality has been decriminalized, high levels of prejudice remain throughout Uttar Pradesh.
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
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