Asian Geographic – Dec 2012

My article “Death in Varanasi – The ultimate liberation” has featured in Dec 2012 issue of Asian Geographic magazine. The relevant pages from the magazine can be viewed by clicking on the images below and scrolling. I have also provided the article content in text format for ease of reading.

Death In Varansi – The ultimate liberation?

“A stone I died and rose again a plant; A plant I died and rose an animal; I died an animal and was born a man. Why should I fear? What have I lost by death?”…. Rumi

In the ancient Hindu scripture, Matsya Purana, Lord Shiva says , “Varanasi  is my most sacred place, the cause of liberation. All sins, which may have accumulated in thousands of previous lives, disappear if one dies here.”

Varanasi is a city of contrasts. Here you can experience, death and life, asceticism and hedonism, learning and ignorance, all existing side by side.

Following age-old traditions, many old people move to Varanasi towards the end of their lives. It’s strange but only here can you find hotels that are targeted at the dying enthusiasts. Such establishments have a unique policy, which typically reads : “Welcome to check-in at no cost, but should you not die in a few days, we will ask you to leave.”

Then there are the Sadhus, the ascetic holy men, having given up material attachment to life, are seen contemplating on the banks of river Ganges. It’s hard to read into their minds, but some of them could just decide to commit religious suicide by walking alive into the river. While Hinduism considers the act of suicide as crime that would lead to miserable rebirths, however it is only in Varanasi, that this becomes an act of supreme liberation.

Varanasi is located on the banks of river Ganges, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, at about 800 km east of New Delhi. The entire city is built along the western banks of the river. Ganges here has a width of about 200 meters in pre-monsoon but can easily swell to twice the size during the monsoons, expanding entirely on the eastern bank.

Along the western bank of the river, the ghats, areas defined for religious & social gatherings, are numbered in hundreds. Manikarnika ghat, one of the oldest ghats, is the primary cremation site. Here about 300 bodies are cremated in the open air, every day of the year. At any point there would be about 10 – 15 pyres burning in the cremation pits.  A glance around the cremation area can jolt ones senses, while others could go deep into contemplation. Fixated on the burning pyres, many are seen wondering if there is any meaning to life.

The cremation process at Manikarnika ghats runs smoothly and efficiently. The constant burning of pyres – nothing short of a production line – requires a regular supply of wood. Logs are brought on boats and then stacked all around the bank in piles several metres high.

Draped in bright in bright red and gold fabrics, bodies are brought in on wooden stretchers by relatives, and are placed in a queue for their turn to be moved to the cremation pits. Corpses are simply left on the grounds, with dogs and cows sniffing the bodies being a common sight. Hired Doms – men from the “untouchable” caste, move each body, in turn, to the pits and cover it with about 300 kilograms of wood.

In the small temples along the streets above the cremation area, a senior male member of the family of the deceased, changes in a white dress to perform the last rites. After praying, he lights a pile of reeds from the fire pit at the entrance of a temple right behind the cremation area. It is believed this fire has been burning here for thousands of years and was started by Lord Shiva himself.

With the burning reed, the man circles the body a few times and then lights the pyre. As the body starts burning, he then fills a clay pot with water from Ganges and throws it on the pyre, over his shoulders. Having performed this act, he breaks the pot by throwing it to the ground. The breaking of the pot signifies the end of the relationship with the deceased person. A body must generally be left on a pyre for about 12 hours in order to burn fully. At Manikarnika ghat, however, the queues are long, allowing the maximum of three hours per body.

When the time has passed, a  man from the Dom community then clears the pit, but first searches the ashes for any gold or silver ornaments which the body had been ordained before being cremated. Having collected any valuable metals, the remains of the semi-burnt body are simply shoveled into the river.  Suddenly, the dogs that have been lazing around the area become active : it is common to see them fight over the bones.

The practice of burning the dead does not apply to all Hindus. Since burning the dead is a way of cleansing the soul, holy men, children below the age of 12 and women that were pregnant at the time of death are not cremated, because they are associated with purity. Such a body is wrapped in white cloth, tied to a huge rock, rowed to the middle of the Ganges and dumped overboard to be devoured by river fish.

It is not uncommon to also see the bodies of Sadhus, who may have committed religious suicide in pursuit of salvation, floating in the gentle currents of the river. Birds can be seen feasting on these floating islands of partially decomposed flesh. Dogs, too, can be seen waiting patiently on the eastern banks for the bodies that drift to ashore.

The phenomenon of death in Varanasi  can be deeply unsettling for the faint hearted. I stood at the banks of Manikarnika Ghat, listening to the voice inside me ask, “Is dying in Varanasi a fast track to attaining liberation? Can the entire life’s doings be undone by making this last stop in Varanasi and inviting death with open arms?”

I was reminded of Saint Kabir, born 1398 AD, who, having spent his entire life in Varanasi, decided to leave it in his last days, heading to Maghar, a barren village. That tradition put a stigma on Maghar – it is said that if one dies here, one will surely be stuck in the wheels of reincarnation, with a chance of being born as a donkey. But Kabir’s message was bold and clear : “A hardened sinner will not escape the fires of hell, even if he dies in Varanasi. However a man of virtues, even if he dies in Maghar, will be emancipated.”

My experience of Varanasi taught me that it’s not physical death, but the death of conscience that needs to be feared. As I stood on the eastern bank of Ganges, a marriage procession suddenly emerged. In front of me was the Manikarnika Ghat: on my right, dogs waited patiently for the next body to surface from the river; on my left, a group celebrated the joy of marriage.

Truly, Varanasi is a city of contrasts, where death is just a passing event.