One Body, One Fire
Updated: Mar 18
REFLECTIONS ON VARANASI
Since my visit to the ancient city of Benares, now called Varanasi, I have come to sometimes think of it by its fond name of "Kashi."
This journey was truly a pilgrimage, and one that I had wanted to make for several years but had been too trepidatious to actually carry out. It's a long road there, and not the most comfortable one, although to be fair my trip went as smoothly as it could for someone on a budget such as mine. My main destination was the cremation ground at Manikarnika Ghat.
The city of Kashi is the sacred abode of Shiva. He loves it there, and it is considered to be a place somewhat outside of this world and outside of time. Karma is intensified and more easily purified there, one's yoga is exponentially empowered, and Hindus believe that dying in Kashi and being cremated on a pyre on the ghats will lead to liberation from the cycle of Karma and Samsaric existence. Therefore many pilgrims make their way to Kashi to die.
The ghats are the stone steps and platforms that line the Ganges, the holy river that is revered as the body of the great Mother or Goddess herself. Manikarnika is the main one of the few burning ghats, where it is said there are bodies burning, day and night, unceasingly. The sandalwood pyres are lit by a flame dedicated to Shiva that has been tended and kept alight continuously for hundreds, some say thousands, of years.
There are elaborate ceremonies carried out around these cremations, the basics of which were explained to me more than once by helpful locals who like to chat up foreigners.
Firstly, only certain people are eligible for the privilege of being burned on the pyres. I am sorry to say I forget how many rupees it costs for the large bundles of wood required, as well as the services of the untouchables who keep the fires burning evenly, turning the corpses over with poles to ensure that as much of the body is consumed as possible (the rest, usually a chunk of the chest of men and the hips of women, is tied to a rock and disposed of in the river). I think it was a few thousand rupees, about the equivalent of $50-$100 (depending on the type of wood). I do, however, remember that electric cremation in the town will cost a body only 600 rupees- that's less than $10! Seems like a good deal to me.
Five types of Hindu or causes of death are not allowed to be burned on the ghats. Pregnant women and children are not eligible; nor are priests who are already considered to be holy.
Lepers, too, cannot be burned there, and the last group is people who have died by cobra bite. This is so because the cobra is sacred to Shiva, and people sometimes come back from this death to live again. Therefore, they are wrapped in banana leaves and their corpses are left to float for a few days, anchored out in the middle of the Ganges, just in case they wake up.
In Varanasi, the dead bodies are wrapped in bright cloths, covered in colorful scented powders, and arrayed with flowers on bamboo stretchers to be carried rapidly through the narrow alleyways by groups chanting the name of "Ram." The bodies are dipped in the Ganges for purification before burning, then placed, usually just wrapped in a cotton cloth although sometimes still with the synthetic orange and yellow satins and gold lamé, on pyres of different types of wood, including expensive sandalwood. Mourners dressed in white, with shaven heads, and other family members walk clockwise around the pyre 5 times, once for each element of the body- fire, earth, air, water, and aether.
The fire is lit with a reed kindled from the sacred fire that has been burning continuously since time immemorial. It takes 3 hours for each body to burn. Sometimes ghee is added to make the fire burn hotter, and attendants from the untouchable class laborious stoke the several pyres burning on the Manikarna ghat at all times of day and night. Mourners, locals, animals, and occasional tourists linger about, meditate, and drink chai on the steps, while workers endlessly chop and stack wood for the pyres.
There is a pathway between the burning bodies that is the only way through. In order to pass, one must walk amidst the many fires, feeling their heat intensely. The smoke stings and temporarily blinds the eyes, and then one sees close by limbs and faces in various stages of melting and cremation. It was in the midst of this that a guide explained to me, "One body, one fire." A nearby worker repeated the phrase, until it seemed to me that they were chanting, "one body, one fire, one body, one fire..."
Later, I sat on a step, drinking a small cup of chai, and watched a skull squirt its pressurized liquids forcefully, with a loud sizzling sound. The smell does not seem overwhelming or offensive at the time, but after a while it may become hard to take. One becomes imbued with this odor, and coated in a thin layer of ashes.
I was not allowed to take photographs of the burning grounds, as many people are mourning there, and everyone wants to be respectful. Well, I admit I tried a few times but was immediately stopped by local people. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy the gallery of images I gathered from the surrounding areas along the ghats of Varanasi, included below.
I had other experiences in Varanasi as well. I saw both the evening and early morning fire ceremonies, called aarti, by the Ganga. I attended a yoga class on Assi ghat at dawn, which I really enjoyed, and got smashed in the narrow alleyways in the crowds headed to the Sri Viswanath temple, which is one of the holiest temples dedicated to Shiva. I had an exceptionally good lassi in a literal hole in a wall while corpses where rushed past just inches away, to the chant of Ram, Ram, Ram. But the main event and purpose of my visit was to see and sit in the cremation grounds.
It is these exact grounds that are the subject of mythology, but they are real. This is the place where Kali dances, and where Shiva resides. They are charged with meaning and Shakti, and are only partly of this world.
When metalheads quote Dissection and the great Kali devotee and poet Ramprasad Sen- it is to these cremation grounds that they refer:
Maha Kali, dark mother dance for me Let the purity of your nakedness awaken me Yours are the fires of deliverance which shall bring me bliss Yours is the cruel sword which shall set my spirit free
Devourer of life and death who rule beyond time In thy name I shall fullfil my destiny divine Maha Kali, formless one, destroyer of illusion Your songs forever sung, the tunes of dissolution
Kalika, black tongue of fire, embrace me Make me one with your power for all eternity Awaken within me the reflection of your flame Kiss me with your bloody lips and drive me insane
Jai Kalika! Jai Kali! Make me one with your power for all eternity Maha Kali come to me
Smashana Kali, I burn myself for thee I cut my own throat in obscene ecstasy I make love to abominations, embrace pain and misery Until my heart becomes the burning ground and Kali comes to me
O dark mother, hear me calling thee Mahapralaya, bring to me Through all illusions I shall see I shall cremate this world and set my essence free
Jai Kalika! Jai Kali! Without fear I will dance with death and misery Maha Kali, come to me
"O Kali, thou art fond of cremation grounds So I have turned my heart into one, that thou may dance there unceasingly. O mother, I have no other fond desire in my heart. Fire of a funeral pyre is burning there."
Jai Maha Kali, Jai Ma Kalika Jai Maha Kali, Jai Ma Kalika Kali Mata, namo nama Kali Mata, namo nama Jai Kalika! Jai Kali! At your left hand for endless victory Maha Kali, come to me Jai Kalika! Jai Kali! Mahapralaya will set our spirits free Maha Kali, come to me
I hope you enjoy these images from the most ancient city of Kashi, where Shiva and Shakti first kissed, and time began.