100 Days in India Project

28/ 100 Buying the Flame of Death

Varanasi cremations – continued… (see day 27 for part 1)

Hindu people are cremated at Varanasi 24 hours a day, with anywhere from 100 to 200 bodies being ritually burned each day. The principle of cremation is that the body’s ties with the spirit are broken, sins are burned away and the spirit can achieve Moshka, or enlightenment. If the body is not cremated and buried, the soul will linger in the vicinity and not depart.

Only the lower caste Indians are permitted to handle the dead and, in spite of their place in society, are actually relatively wealthy. Although possibly not as wealthy as the official provider of the eternal flame needed to start the cremation. This fire is in the safe keeping of Yamuna Devi who charges a hefty sum for people to come and collect a bit of the flame that she says has been burning in her oven for centuries, a bit like the lumps of unidentifiable carbonised stuff that everyone has in the bottom of their cooker at home.

Because funerals are expensive, financially and ecologically, many cannot afford enough wood for a body to burn completely (or even pay someone to carry the big bits of wood for them). This often results in fairly chunky bits of the deceased’s thorax and head being left in the ashes. This being India nothing goes to waste and cows pick through the remains looking for unburned flower garlands whilst dogs look for something more suited to their tastes. The people working at the cremation ghats, and the families themselves, didn’t really seem to care. Our Indian friend told us that Hindus don’t place much value on their physical bodies so it wasn’t a big deal.

Not every Hindu is cremated. Holy men are buried in a lotus position surrounded by salt. Babies (whose souls haven’t had the chance to fully bond with their bodies), pregnant women, and sufferers of smallpox and Hansen’s disease have a stone tied to them and they are dropped in the middle of the river, bobbing to the surface and floating off a few days later. I was greatly relieved to have never come across any remains. We were told by our friend who has lived there all of his life that, because of the expense of cremations, very poor people do a short ceremony and just plop the intact body into the Ganges.

Here is something to think about at dinner time – it is very common for younger people, mainly from the US and UK, to come to India and ‘find themselves’. We spoke to several of them in cafes in Varanasi. They all seemed to be very keen on the idea of joining the locals one morning and having a ceremonial dip in the river. True enough, we did see them each day. Even the thought of immersing myself in something barely recognisable as water gives me tummy ache.