Varanasi: The City of the Dead (xi)

Oct 27, 2008 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Varanasi, the holy city of the dead, is a blast of life. Right from the train station, the roads are dense in clanking bicycles, women in black veils in horse-drawn buggies, men pushing carts of potatoes, all to the sound of constant sweet bicycle bells. My relaxed rickshaw driver, with soft dark eyes, drives me to the Ganges View hotel right on the Asi Ghat, a hundred year old heritage home recommended so highly by theater director Richard Schechner in New York, that I had included Varanasi on my tour, just for him.

The hotel is three stories of wooden balconies and solid antique furniture, overlooking a most peaceful high floating Ganges, and my room, veiled in green, opens up to a veranda of stained glass windows over the water. The manager Prakesh gently leads me to my writing desk. Outside, I walk along and hear a voice, and stumble into a temple where a half-naked old man, long white beard to his belly-button, thin as bone, sings, leaning into his accordion, while two other men drum. Black buffalo pass in the road, with women holding vases on their heads, and I stop at a stand where a man pours a slop of creamy chai into a glass. I drink it with a fellow traveler, an Italian lawyer who tells me of his passion for India--it is his fourth time here. Then, as we walk the narrow medieval streets past the clanging bicycles and the strolling children, women and men, we speak of our love for the magic of Pasolini, Fellini and Kieslowski.

Italian Lawyer

He tells me that the power of Kieslowski's "Blue" is that the woman -- who has lost her husband and child -- emerges victorious as she decides that she is, alone, capable of creating her own identity. "This is the power of the human being," he says.

In the evening, I hear the clanging bells at the ghat, and come down the stairs and see a man lifting bowls of fire to the goddess, Mother Ganges, while Indian men and women sit in a semi-circle in the dark on the steps. A baby girl in her mother's lap reaches her tiny hand over mine, and drops in three petals of flowers. We smile at each other, and she does it again--three more little petals. The man next to me explains that when the clanging and fire throwing come to a pitch, and the chanting begins--the men's voices strong in unison--I am to join the crowd and do pooja at the river's edge: drop the baby's girl's flowers from my palms into the dark water.


I then go back to sit on the steps next to a goat.

The next morning, I go to a beauty salon, to dye my hair -- in keeping with the Varanasi spirit of making all things new -- and the two women include in the hair experience a face massage with oils (massaging even the nostrils), threaded eyebrows, and -- what is most spectacular -- a painting of the arms with a white almond paste. The smells of all their creams and pastes are exquisite: almond, apple, coconut. In-between the sessions, the women bring me a cup of chai, in a small hardened green leaf, and then send for a little boy who brings fresh grape juice in a plastic bag.


When the sun is about to set, I take a peddle tuk-tuk to go to one of the cremation ghats. The ghats are busy in Varanasi, as people come from all over India to be burned there -- or even better to die, as it is believed that if one dies in Varanasi one's soul goes straight to nirvana, skipping out of the eternal cycle of rebirth: the samsara of karma and suffering. There are two cremation ghats in Varanasi: one for the very poor, and one for the better off. The Italian warned me not to see the cremation ghat for the poor, and this is the one I saw first.

Varanasi overwhelms and disturbs some visitors, and, at dusk, when the dust has settled into a heated smog, so heavy and dense that I am sweating and breathing dirt, it is very apparent why. It is hard to not notice that the old man peddling my bike has legs so thin and a face so worn that I wonder why it is not I peddling over the dirt rocky road rather than him -- and this for 20 cents. The old woman who puts her hand to her mouth and then stretches it is not exaggerating when she gestures that she is hungry. The children selling flowers for the pooja ceremony have already learned to be ambitious peddlers, chasing me up the stairs in the hopes that I will take their wooden bowl of petals.

But it is the cremation ceremony at the "poor" ghat (Harishchandra Ghat) that makes the poverty -- or wealth -- of the individual a shocking and nonetheless vain distinction.

Two fires burned on pyres of wood next to the Ganges, and as I sat high under the a small Shiva temple, looking down, the owner of the ghats explained that one wrapped body, next to one pyre, would soon go up in flame--and from there it would be three hours before it turned to ash. "Is there no ceremony?" I said, watching the groups of people milling at the shore, in the dark, while a man stuck his pitchfork in the fire, turning the wood.

"Yes," the man explained. "The closest relative walks around the body five times, for each of the elements: fire, air, earth, water and wind. This way the fifth element, the wind-soul, can leave for nirvana."

I remembered a similar ritual, described by Primo Levi, in the Kabbalah tradition, but there it was to keep away the children of Lilith.

I left with my adopted guide, a young boy, along the smog-smoky dark dusty road, passing a group of people running down with a body on a piece of wood, a woman, as she was covered in a bright shiny cloth. The men lowered the plank into the Ganges, until she and the cloth were soaking wet.

The funeral pyres go all night. "There is no beginning or end to life and birth," the owner explains.

The burning continues in shops in Varanasi: when one buys silk, the renowned handiwork of the city, the merchant will, at one point or another, take out a match and light the scarf on fire, so you can see it is real silk. Polyester threads will turn to plastic; silk will burn like human hair.



continued from: Karin Badt