A thin layer of smoke and ash cover my skin as the infernos of Varanasi relentlessly burn on throughout the day and night. For Hindus, there can be no holier place to die than in this ancient and dusty town where the Ganges River flows. The sacred waters are believed to cut the cycle of reincarnation and lead to a direct route to heaven. Cremation sites called ghats line the Ganges. Only men of the family are allowed to participate in the cremation, entering the afterlife is considered a happy time and it’s believed women are more likely to cry and ruin the mood so to speak. I took advantage of the fact that foreigners are exempted from this custom so long as they do not snap photos.
A procession of male family members sing and chant, carrying a body prepared for cremation. They place the body over a pyre according to which caste they belong to. Poor people are burned away from the river, the merchant and warrior castes are burned on steps close to the Ganges and Brahmins, the priest caste, are burned on a platform above everyone else. The chief mourner sprinkles water from the Ganges over the body, which is wrapped in a shroud. The men circle the body three times and ignite the pyre. The strength of the flames correspond to the wealth of the family as it requires more money to buy sandalwood, ghee and other flammable fare.
One pyre in front of me is away from the river and burns low. I see the dead man’s face, he appears young and an acute sense of shock fills me as he’s consumed by the flames. Yet I cannot look away. The fire burns for three hours and members of his family take turns handling a long bamboo stick to rearrange his bones over the pyre.
Another man is burned closer to the river, I see the skin on his arm scorch and fray, ribboning in the fire. Family members watch to make sure his body is undisturbed. They shoe away cows, goats and other large animals that come too close, including questionably shady human folk.
Eyes on the ghat lock eyes on a dark man with wild hair dressed in a black loin cloth. Worshippers of the dark side of Shiva, the destroyer god, are said to consume human flesh and seek human skull bowls. Families crush skulls that do not burn to make sure they do not end up being used for black magic. The dark man enters the ghat, followed by a dozen dogs. He carries a mysterious black sack and sits quietly on the steps, watching half a dozen bodies burn. Families give him dirty looks but in the end he seems harmless. Another oddly dressed man goes to a steaming pyre and cooks a plate of vegetables and bread. Stray dogs mate and howl in the corner. This place is just weird.
Further down the river a large ghat catches my attention. A man approaches me and beckons me to follow. He explains how the ash-covered Manikarnika ghat is lined by dusty hospice homes, filled with the terminally ill whose dying wish is to be cremated in Varanasi. He leads me up a flight of stairs toward a glowing pile of coals. He points to a man lying on the ground who he says is responsible for making sure the embers never die. My guide takes ash from the fire and places it on my forehead as he makes motions to bless me. He explains that this ash comes from the eternal flame. Every pyre in Varanasi must be ignited by this fire. Legend has it that the coals lie on the spot where Parvati, goddess of war, dropped an earring. He asks for money and I hand him some rupees. There is a lot of begging in Varanasi.
Further down the river, washed up on the shore, some fellow travelers discover a dead baby, all purple, black and blue. A guide explains that people with pure souls are not cremated, including pregnant women, holy men and children under two years old. Instead they’re wrapped in a shroud and placed directly into the river. We leave the baby alone.
With all this talk of death there is great tribute to life. The Ganges gives life giving water throughout India and every sunset an elaborate Ganga aarti ceremony is performed to honor Mother Ganga. Loud clanging bells fill the air on Dashashwamedh ghat, which is flooded with light and crowds of people. A row of men perform a showy choreographed offering to the goddess. The best seats are on the river where several boats gather on the calm waters. I carry an offering of marigolds and candles made of ghee. I set my offering into the river and whisper a couple of words. A trail of candle light floats on top of the water, perhaps lighting the way for those souls awaiting the afterlife. The sun slips beneath the clouds and the serenity of dusk illuminates the sky. The unique beauty of it all leaves no doubt in my mind that Varanasi is a magical wonder.