Death - The eternal city
by Nishant Arora
According to popular Hindu belief, the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives (samsara) and its next incarnation is always dependent on how the previous life was lived. Each individual must take responsibility for all the actions they have performed in this or previous lives. Death is a key part of this cycle of samsara and is treated as the ‘last sacrifice’.
It is preferable for a Hindu to die at home. Here, the question arises: is there a place on earth where the eternal journey could be given its final break? Where the physical body can meet the infinite and one is freed from the wheel of rebirth?
With this question in mind, one heads for one of the oldest living sacred cities in the world—Varanasi (also called Banaras). It is a city that celebrates death as no other city, either in India or in the world, does. For centuries it has been believed that to die in Varanasi and be cremated at the banks of the Ganga makes it easier to be absolved of karma, and freed from samsara. It has always been the place where union with the Supreme has been within touching distance.
Literally over 3,000 years old, Varanasi brims with the wisdom of ages. This is the land where the Buddha once walked, where Mark Twain took a ride down the Ganga, and where successive generations from all over India have come to immerse the ashes of their family members.
Located in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where the Ganga bends toward the north, the city is built on the high bluff on the river’s left side. The sand banks on the other shore are completely desolate because they are inundated with water every monsoon.
It is said that only those who are lucky die here and are cremated in Kashi, another name for Varanasi, the city of Shiva. “Virtue does not grow easily in Banaras. And vice has no better place. For all come here to burn,” says writer Raja Rao in his famous book, Allegory from Banaras.
Witnessing last rites at the sombre Manikarnika Ghat, a cremation ghat where fire emanates from burning bodies around the clock, can easily fill you with melancholy. It can also create mixed feelings of fear and joy, of life and death, of leaving the hustle-bustle of life behind and simply relaxing on the banks of the Ganga, of having come to know the basic truth of life. Between Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat, the other famous burning ghat of Varanasi, the holy city hums with eternal life.
Death is a constant companion for the people who live near the ghats. Death to them is like a friend who comes every day, spends some time, and goes away, only to return the next day. Boatman Raju, who was born and brought up near one of the ghats, says: “It is a routine thing for me to see dead bodies. They belong to us now. I have even seen half-burnt bodies floating in the river that are left for the animals to eat. There is no more fear as I have become a part of the world of the dead.”
Says Amar Nath Chaudhary, who sells kafan (shrouds) and other materials required at the time of cremation: “I have seen numerous people being burnt on these ghats. Though I normally charge ten rupees for the kafan, I also give it for free to those who cannot afford. Sir, dying is not a cheap affair. Wood is costly for a poor person to buy. Plus there are several other expenditures before you can start your journey towards moksha.”
For most of us, the smoky heat emanating from the burning ghats cannot be a soothing experience. As I begin to walk past the burning ghats, I notice shrouded corpses being borne through the streets by chanting families. It is as if a festival of death is going on! No one has tears in their eyes because they feel dying in Varanasi is valuable, an opportunity reserved for the fortunate few.
In this city, death is an inseparable shadow of life. Stiff corpses wrapped in golden fabric blazing on riverside funeral pyres are a common sight. Processions carrying bodies on a platform draped in shimmering gold and red bring the body down to the Ganga for a final bath in the river. Nothing else can make you realise the inevitability of death as forcefully as all this.
The process of cremation is complex and multi-layered. A candle is lit by the head of the deceased. The body is then bathed, anointed with sandalwood, shaved (if male) and wrapped in cloth. It is then carried to the funeral pyre by male relatives and prayers are said to Yama, the god of death. The name of Ram is also chanted. While doing this, the pyre is circumambulated thrice in an anti-clockwise direction.
On the funeral pyre, the feet of the body are positioned pointing south in the direction of the realm of Yama, and the head positioned north towards the realm of Kubera, god of wealth. The chief mourner then accepts flaming agni (fire) twigs from a Dom, member of a community of people who have traditionally been keepers of cremation grounds. The body is now an offering to Agni, the god of fire, and is burnt for three hours in the ghat.
Nearly 250 corpses meet their end here at the burning ghats of Varanasi on an average day. If the family runs out of money for wood before the cadaver is fully burnt, you will find the partially incinerated body floating down the Ganga.
According to the Hindu religion, cremation of the body is important for three reasons:
• It controls the pollution created by death.
• It allows the family to grieve for the deceased and let them go.
• It releases the soul of the deceased so that it can continue to its next life.
There are, however, some exceptions to this rule. Babies who have not yet been named and holy men are buried.
Like India itself, Varanasi is bewildering. People from all strata of society, from all corners of the world, gather in the city to seek liberation. At some point of time, it may appear to you mystical and mundane, at another point, fascinating and repulsive.
“Death is my next-door neighbour”
The Dom community has traditionally been the custodian of cremation grounds. The Doms are keepers of the sacred fire, which is never allowed to die down, and are the cremators of the dead. The chief cremation undertakers at Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats in Varanasi are called ‘Dom Raja’. Also called ‘Choudhary’, they consider themselves descendants of Kalu Dom, who worked as a cremation undertaker during the regime of Raja Harishchandra, a king in ancient times. It is said that if the person being cremated is to achieve moksha, the fire for his funeral pyre must be taken from the Dom Raja.
There are around 30 Choudharys or main cremation undertakers in Varanasi and nearly 430 other Doms who form the second rung of the Dom hierarchy. But the supreme among them is the Dom who lives at Tripura Bhairavi Ghat, in a house with two painted tigers flanking the terrace. Excerpts from an interview with the current Dom Raja, Sanjeet Choudhary:
Tell us about your roots.
As you know, our first ancestor Kalu Dom was working as a crematorium undertaker during the tenure of Raja Harischandra. The Raja sold himself to Kalu Dom and worked as a watchman and cremation undertaker in Kashi, Varanasi’s earlier name. That is why we add ‘Raja’ as surname.
You are living among the dead round the clock. Don’t you feel fear at any point of time?
What fear? Having cremated hundreds of bodies, there is no space left for tears, emotions and so on. I have been de-sensitised. Death to me is a next-door neighbour whom I meet everyday. I have learnt the biggest lesson of this life, that one has to die, so why be afraid? I, in fact, enjoy death now.
Approximately how many dead bodies you cremate in a day?
On an average, we mostly burn 100-120 dead bodies in a single day. This continues for 24 hours, so there is no respite for us. They come from various places as dying in the city of Kashi is equivalent to dying at the feet of the Almighty.
What is the cost of dying in Varanasi?
Charges vary. For poor people who can’t afford wood and other materials, we burn them for free. Otherwise we take nominal charges from the relatives.
Has the introduction of electric crematoriums by the government affected your job?
Yes, but only to a certain extent. People who believe in tradition still come to the ghat. A Hindu body is to be burnt with complete set of rituals that cannot be performed in an electric crematorium.
If given a choice, would you like to continue with your current job?
I would like to be Dom Raja as this is a work that reminds you at every step that death is inevitable, so live your life and enjoy it. Also, this is a seva that we perform to the society at large. My family has been performing this seva since time immemorial and will continue to do so.
Any complaints or regrets?
Not at all. I have been chosen to give agni to those who travel long distances to come to Varanasi to get moksha. What more can one ask for, than to be part of this truth called death even while alive? I have no complaints about what I am today.
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