Last Updated: March 27th, 2019
Wrapped in a white sari, she sat cross-legged on her paper thin mat waiting to die. The solemn look on her deeply creased face complemented her hunched over posture. It was the look of a lifetime of poverty in India. Her diminutive frame crumpled by the weight of a hard life occupied almost no space in the cavernous concrete structure, a hospice overlooking the sacred Ganga River.
Soon it would be her turn to die. And according to Hindu belief, she was in the best place for it: Varanasi. The holiest of India’s cities. Having spawned Ravi Shankar, Kabir and other great artists, Varanasi is known for its vibrant arts scene. It is known for its fine silk and clothing. It is known for its temples. But above all else it is known for its cremation ritual, a non-stop sacred spectacle on the ghats (river embankments) of the Ganga.
Pulled by poignant images of this centuries-old ritual, I had arrived in Varanasi curious and ready for anything. Since my mother had died when I was a young adult I had felt somehow closer to death. Connected to it and always keen to learn lessons from it.
As I approached the main burning ghat a young man warned me not to take photos of the cremation, speaking with the authority of someone who worked there. In a city where you can’t walk more than a minute before being asked if you want to hire a boat, get a massage, have your ears cleaned or buy some drugs, the touts have to be aggressive or else they won’t get anywhere, so I thought he was trying to sell me something. But he introduced himself as a volunteer, saying he wanted no cash. It was a good service he does too, since the ghats have inevitably become a tourist attraction that locals are surprisingly OK with considering they’re grieving close family and friends.
He passed me off to the hospice manager who led me to a grim looking concrete shell of a building. No windows or finishings of any kind, just a bare cold structure. It didn’t look like much and was equally uninviting from the inside. But it had a view.
From this high point, the woman in white and a cluster of other elders had front row seats to a steady stream of death and a time lapse photograph of decay. They sat on hard concrete floors, talking little—the silence forcing them to contemplate what soon would become their own fate, pleased knowing that they’ve upped the odds of ending the cycle of life and death by dying in the sacred heart centre of India. How long they sit is only up to the universe to decide.
And what a fitting way it is to spend your last days. Whether you’ve spent any amount of time contemplating death, you’re inevitably contemplating life. You’re asking the big questions: “Who am I? What am I here for? What is my purpose in life?
As I looked out the windowless opening in the building, I inhaled smoky air thick with the weight of grief. Death and decay were all around, but it did not smell of death and decay thanks to the bodies being carefully prepared with ghee (clarified butter).
The tools of the cremation trade were all right around the burning ghat. One armful after another, strong men carried heaps of wood to even stronger men who chopped the wood all day. Brahmin priests dressed all in white with shaved heads save for a little tail of hair at the top blessed the bodies with reverence while the dom (members of the untouchable caste) did the dirty work, routinely stoking the fire and flipping the bodies like burgers on a barbeque.
The hospice manager told me about the plight of the poor who die in Varanasi. They cannot afford to buy enough wood so their half-charred remains are dumped into the Ganga, adding to the mess of one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Varanasi had a wise idea awhile back: fill the river with flesh-eating turtles, but that pretty much flopped when the turtles got poached. They tried pushing a crematorium as an alternative, but that just didn’t have the same allure as the traditional cremation ritual.
The woman in white put her hands on my head and blessed me, chanting a number of words in Hindi. With the manager translating, she asked me for the names of my family members so I could extend the blessing to them. Afterwards, he asked for a great sum of money to pay for wood for her. I offered some money, not nearly as much as he asked for, and left, heading below for a closer look.
Deceased brahmins (highest caste of priests and scholars) scored the preferred spots higher up from the river and the untouchable castes were forced down to the bank of the river, which was thick with the muck of cow dung, ashes and who knows what else.
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on death and impermanence jolted to mind as I took in the scene. I repeated a shortened version of one of his gathas (mindfulness practice verses): breathing in I see my dead body, breathing out I smile at my dead body, as I visualized my deceased body being burned to ashes.
This visualization, like his other gathas, instilled a sense of peace in me. Intellectually I had known that everything is impermanent, but somehow standing among these bodies being burned out in the open right beside men washing their clothes and cows grazing through the rubbish, just felt so… natural. Not some far-off, melancholic event shrouded by closed caskets to be buried in the ground, but present. Real.
What amplified the feeling of impermanence was living as just one of this country’s 1.2 billion, liberated from any need to individualize. The jaws of reality bit hard: just be as I am right here with whatever I’ve got and as whoever I am. Just be every day until I die. And when I die… poof. Gone just the way I came.
As I walked away from the ghat and winded my way through the ancient city’s labyrinthine alleys, I still felt connected to the scene at the river. A regular stream of bodies being paraded on bamboo stretchers by family members chanted, “Rama nama satya hai. Rama nama satya hai” (the name of god is truth). A solemn reminder of death that charged the city’s atmosphere with life.
The more we understand death, the more we appreciate life. Almost every time I talk to my 91-year-old grandmother she tells me to “enjoy your life” which reminds me of the aphorism, “Live every day as if it’s your last.” This reminder first came to me as a parting gift from my mother’s premature death and has since been regifted to me time and again. And it is a reminder that’s there for anyone who wants to reflect on the uncomfortable thought of death. An uncomfortable reminder that is played out in the open for all to see every minute of every day in Varanasi.