Life and Death in Varanasi
I can comfortably say that despite being in the middle of my trip to India in 2016, this is really where ‘it all began’. This is where a concurrence of events, conditions and timing were so perfect that I knew change had to be adopted wholeheartedly. I have never felt so entirely lost in a place and yet at the same time very much found, in all my life…so with a complete sense of gratitude I want to describe some of the highlights of my trip last October.
Arriving into Varanasi is nothing short of crazy. The ride from the airport was as always the way in India, in a micro-taxi. Two things were always guaranteed – crazy driving, and the laughing I caused at every one of my destinations. Every person around the taxi rank would stop to stare at the blond 6’6” man trying to fold his legs and head into the back of their supremely small white taxi cabs. I would always laugh and smile with them, knowing that there was nothing mean or malicious in their intent, just a rare and somewhat spectacular moment that they were enjoying.
The tiny cab hurtled along the increasingly narrow and more crowded streets. The more compact the cab’s surroundings become, the closer I reached into the old city. As anyone who has been anywhere in India will understand, the flow of traffic seems to come from all directions and then some. Varanasi was I think the ultimate example that I found during my time there – you have the feeling that even if you screamed no-one would hear you. The noise of revving engines and honking of horns is deafening, the air pollution is off the chart.
Press play, I hope this short video takes you into the mayhem of Indian traffic for a moment!
The taxi came to a point where he couldn’t drive me any further, so waved me out of the cab, somewhat briskly in fact, in the middle of the traffic, almost throwing me and my bag onto the non-existent curb. So my backpack and I started to walk into one of the dark passageways to find my guesthouse. An inevitable sense of fear (or perhaps a better word for it is trepidation) hit me as I walked in. Anyone that I know that has been, or that I met whilst there all said that there is nothing quite like it.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get narrower, the old city’s streets turned and winded a bit more, in most places the width of a very narrow hallway in a house. It felt like getting up to ‘relieve myself’ in the night, in a half sleep, and realising that I didn’t know and couldn’t see where the walls, doors or stairs were. Barely legible painted words and shapes appeared on dark crumbling walls. The words of Bram Stoker were mixing in my head with the extraordinary site before me, forming a unique Indian version of Transylvania.
The buildings were so close together it felt like they touched each other above my head. As tight as these hallways were, scooters, auto-rickshaws and even oversized bulls still managed to find their way along and through them, bibbing and beeping all the way. I immediately had to find a doorway or ledge, pressing myself flat and out of the way in order to avoid a collision. This was not the time or place to be switching off.
Even within the crazy, bustling, unwavering movement of the streets and all that passes through them, there was a somehow impossible stillness. I was immediately transfixed.
During my four-day stay many locals told me that this was the oldest city in the world. The Hindu faith says that Lord Shiva founded it 5,000 years ago whereas academic research tells us it is just 3,000 years old. Either way, it is in the top 20 oldest cities in the world, and an energetic centre like no other.
Situated on the banks of the mighty Ganga (or Ganges in the West), Varanasi forms a spiritual centre for Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists alike. Historically it has also been a centre for industry with silk and muslin, amongst many others.
My arrival into a usually busy city coincided with the most holy moment in the calendar for Hindus, so it was immensely crowded. Whilst I was there we heard news of a stampede on a bridge as pilgrims were trying to cross the Ganges to the holy village of Domri. Estimates of 5,000 attendees were far outstripped as numbers reached 75-85,000. Tragically twenty-four people were crushed to death as reports reached forward that the bridge they were on was collapsing. As shocking as it was, this saddening report of the loss of life made me want to be even more integrated into this incredible city.
As a result, the banks on the opposite side of the river to the main city were filled by tens of thousands of bathers (see main picture), coming to wash their sins away in its water. Having seen what went into the water, I was absolutely happy to remain inside the boat. I have swum in some pretty perilous waters, however this wasn’t a place that I fancied much. The brown waters hid a combination of things that I shall leave to the imagination.
A major centre for pilgrimage, Varanasi is the city that Hindus believe is the place to die in order to gain salvation. It therefore happens to be the holiest place to burn the dead. The word cremation in the West brings to mind flower-filled, wood-panelled chapels with a small curtain or screen that pulls across once the hymns have been sung, timed with the miraculous vanishing of the coffin. In Varanasi however, the dead are seemingly unceremoniously burned atop stacks of wood on the banks of this most holy river.
Understandably the prospect of seeing a live cremation totally freaked me out at first. In no way was I going to get close. After my first full day and a boat excursion however, my perspective had already begun to change. Compelled to explore on foot, I awoke before dawn to take a long walk on the riverfront, each section of this known as a ‘Ghat’.
Along the bankside I went, until I reached Manikarnika Ghat, where the fires of cremation ‘have never gone out’ (so I was told by a local tour guide). In other words, cremations are offered round the clock. The families of the dead bring their loved ones from all over India for this sacred rite of passage (you can’t begin to imagine the numbers). There is capacity for up to eight cremations to take place at any one time. The passages leading into this area are stacked high with wood, a textural backdrop in front of the constant flurry of activity as men carry bodies through on their shoulders, resting on stretchers.
Manikarnika Ghat from water – a respectful distance.
A cremation was about to begin. I looked on as the eldest son of the deceased bathed in the waters of the river, his head freshly clean-shaven. As he climbed up the steps, he was dried and wrapped in white fabric, before he led the procession that carried the body of his mother wrapped in saffron robes (saffron being the colour of purity through fire).
The son was responsible for lighting the stack of wood that the deceased has been placed upon. He reached with a torch to touch the kindling that was placed within the woodpile just moments before. Slowly the flames started to take and fire spread throughout the high stack. I observed the similarities in shape between this woodpile and a gymnasium box just like you and I would have practiced on as a child in school, however the context so very different to what I was seeing.
Just one of many stacks of wood that in a state of constant re-stocking.
I was told that the wealth of a family dictates the type of wood that their relatives are burnt on – sandalwood being the best option available. I stood on a platform that was out towards the water, looking back at the Ghat, as boats of tourists pulled up a short distance away from me, brought by their guides to see this intimate process unfurl. I remained at a distance far enough that I felt was respectful to the men who looked on (woman are not allowed on the cremation site as they will cry). As the flames became stronger, and their heat began to spread, a profound sense of peace took hold of me.
The saffron fabric had long since burned away, to reveal the dark figure of a body in the flames. I asked myself if this could ever pass back home, a body burning on a stack of wood. I think we all know the answer to that: For safety regulations and disease control, I imagine it probably couldn’t. Most notably I question whether it would be allowed even culturally.
From this I started to observe just how sterilized things are for us at home, and in many ways just how far removed from the truth we’ve become. The music, flowers and ceremony of a funeral in the west, the entire process of embalming and lets not forget the little curtain that pulls miraculously during a cremation, all developed over time to mask the pain of grief and loss. Of course the need for elegance and beauty to reflect the passing of life is vital, that will never change, but I questioned everything I knew in this block of maybe 90 minutes.
The first thing to hit me was respect for the clarity of the process I was bearing witness to. There could be no escaping the fact that this person has died, left their body, transitioned to another place or form. I was also hit with many thoughts about how we avoid the truth. The proof is in the creams that we purchase with the promise to rewind the ageing process, in the surgeon’s knife that tightens a face, in the colouring of the hair that will otherwise give the game away. It’s evidence is in the fact that speaking of death makes most people shudder, when in fact it is the only thing that we all have in common as a race, as a living creature. Does our lack of care and respect for our elders in the west stem from this lack of acceptance of ageing? In India, age is king. The elder statesman and woman are head of the house. In a country where three to four generations often live under one roof, there can be no denying who rules the roost.
When nothing lives forever, why do we behave like this isn’t the case? I realised in this stream of thought that in the fear of death, we are afraid of life. If we have become so conditioned, then perhaps we aren’t living life to its fullest, simply pretending that it isn’t happening, that we aren’t all ageing and heading in one direction.
My thoughts turned to my own life. On this platform I made a pact with myself that I would start to live my life like I wanted to, to take control of it, live it fully, and to do what first makes me happy and keeps me healthy. It was time to stop living in fear, to stop being afraid of what might happen, or what people might think, and just lean in and go for it.
Around 30-40 minutes into the burning a limb fell off the pile of wood – the hip socket had clearly snap crackled and popped open and the whole left leg had fallen onto the ground. It was unceremoniously launched back onto the fire with a long stick. Yes this happened. The old me would have cringed. The new me saw this as an essential step in the releasing of energy back into the ether, a necessary process that we all will go through.
In this major waking moment, I felt so much gratitude for the family that I watched, perhaps somewhat inappropriately, for almost 90 minutes. I tilted my head forward in respect, and gave thanks for the mother of this family, for the son that allowed me to watch, and for my own parents, family, and for everyone that got me to this point.
I calmly walked on along the bankside with a newfound sense of peace, passing architectural intricacies, coloured flags fluttering in the breeze, the sun constantly shining down onto this most magical of places.
Architectural details, the banks in the distance filled by bathers, the classic style of boat.
Even midway into my trip to India, Varanasi was the most surprising and challenging of culture shocks. I went in head on, noting everything that I saw, absorbing everything I could hear, and took in the very specific smells. In its unabashed and authentic way, this most special city gave me a chance to really feel what I needed to feel…I found a truth that will stay in my heart forever.
When life presents you with discomfort, it’s so easy to lean back, thus avoiding the pain that is presented. My experience tells me to lean on in. It’s only when you find and face real discomfort or pain that you find out who you truly are, and what it really is all about.