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There is a hotel that asks its guests to check-in alive and check-out dead. The cost for the stay will be waived, except for electricity costs, if the guest is too poor to pay. The maximum duration of stay is 15 calendar days. Guests (about 800 a year) who check-in to one of the 12 shared rooms, need to literally check-out from the earthly plane before then or they will be asked to leave the hotel. This is the hotel called Kashi Labh Mukti Bhawan and is near the Ganges River in Varanasi. This holy city is where Hindus achieve salvation and eternal liberation or moksha on death.

Moksha means the soul is released or eternally liberated from the endless cycle of rebirth, known as samsara. Here, death is a blessing and not something to be mourned. While Westerners call it “death”, Hindus refer to death as the great departure.

Along the Ganges at Varanasi, there are two burning ghats where bodies are cremated. The main one is the Manikarnika Ghat and cremations here happen 24 hours, all year round. Figures vary (as they do in India), but it is believed that the fire of Shiva which is used to ignite the pyres, has been burning for 3 000 years. We were given a range of numbers of how many cremations take place, with the greatest being 300 per day.

Burning Ghat

It takes 3 hours to burn a body and if there are any bones that have not burnt to ash, it will likely be the pelvis area for woman or the chest area for men. It could be that insufficient or poor quality wood was bought hence the body did not burn properly. Depending on the size of the person, between 240kg and 360kg of wood is needed. There are 4 types of wood with the most expensive being sandalwood because this burning wood is hotter and burns the body quicker thus helping the soul to transition quicker and easier from the body. Mango wood is a cheaper form of wood and used more often. The average cremation costs about one fifth of a person’s annual salary in India, being 7 000 rupees (or about R1 800).  Other costs include earthenware pots, spices and ghee for the body and fabric.

Taking a few steps back, this is the ritual of death:

When it is apparent that a loved one is going to die and the person is at a death hotel or living near or in Varanasi, the body must be placed near the door, on the floor (to reconnect with the earth), head facing east, a lamp lit near his or her head and if the person is able to, urging him or her to concentrate on mantras.  Loved ones keep vigil until the person passes on, by singing hymns, praying and reading sacred texts.  If the person who is dying is in hospital, staff try to accommodate family members and the death rituals.

At the time of departure, a mantra is whispered in the deceased’s ear. Holy ash or sandal paste is applied to the forehead, Vedic verses are chanted, drops of milk and water from the Ganges or other holy water are trickled into the mouth.  The body is then turned so that the head faces south, the lit lamp is kept at the head and incense is lit. Next, a cloth is tied under the chin and over the top of the head. Thumbs are tied together, and big toes tied together. Religious pictures are turned to face the wall. Various rituals take place including washing the body, applying sesame oil to the head and rice balls or pindas are put into the mouth of the deceased by woman to nourish him or her for the journey ahead. If there is a widow, she will place her wedding pendant known as her tali around her deceased husband’s neck.

The deceased must be cremated before the following dusk or dawn. Organs must not be removed from a body nor may it be embalmed.  There is very little written about obtaining a death certificate but one is needed.  If being cremated at the Manikarnika Ghat, the death certificate is not required or checked. There is no “reception” at the Ghat and there are no officials. You do not phone beforehand. You just arrive with the body and wait in line if there is no space. The body would have been carried through the streets of Varanasi to this Ghat, on a bamboo stretcher (a “palanquin”), by a procession of men chanting mantras along the way. The body is covered in a white cloth. The feet face the direction of travel and over the white cloth, bright yellow, orange and gold cloths are draped together with garlands of marigolds.

The body is carried through the entrance at the Ghat, past high piles of logs and straight down the stairs to the river where it is quickly submerged, material and all.  The mourners have to dodge other mourners, bodies on stretchers, litter, broken earthenware, dogs and cows.  It is extremely hot around the pyres and there are big coils of smoke but no odour other than that of burning wood. Tourists can watch the whole process. The only restriction is not taking photographs while at the Ghat. This is because it is believed that taking photographs could hinder the smooth passage of the soul. It is also disrespectful. Photos can be taken from a river rowboat.

Woman are excluded from the cremation or funeral process because they could hinder the smooth passage of the soul from the body.  Their tears and mourning are distressful for the soul in transit. Tears, as body fluid, are also regarded as a pollutant. The aim is to release the soul – a soul that is not released may never achieve moksha and worse still, it may hover between this life and the next one. There are also certain persons who will not be cremated: religious men, children under 10, pregnant woman and lepers. Their bodies are thrown into the Ganges or a channel leading to it, weighted down with a large rock although I have read that children are buried as they are considered pure. The relatives of a deceased who are too poor to pay for a cremation and cannot find a benefactor also throw the dead body into the Ganges.  During monsoon season which is in the middle of the year, these are the bodies that wash ashore and are eaten by predators including stray animals, snapping turtles and carrion birds.

It is these stray animals that also wonder through the gaps between burning pyres.  On the days we were at the Ghat, there were cows and bullocks nearby but they were chained to walls and in the heat, some were foaming at the mouth. Many had gaping festering wounds, and waited patiently for discarded garlands of marigolds to eat. This was the hardest part to watch.  Watching a dead body burn or a half burnt body with hair visible being turned over to burn fully, was easy in comparison to the plight of these animals. At one vantage point, we were surrounded by animals and covered in smoke, which caused me to turn around to face a red temple which was a few metres away. Through the window (which had rusted bars or “grills” and no glazing) I saw long thin fingers holding the grills tight.  An old man or woman was in the temple, watching the cremations, while he or she waited to die.

The old buildings immediately surrounding the Ghat are mainly hospices. Most had no glazing and were very dark inside. Like the two remaining hotels of death or “liberation houses”, the inhabitants of the hospices are waiting to die, relieved in the knowledge that they will die in Varanasi, giving them a chance of salvation.  I read of one person who had been waiting to die in Varanasi for 17 years. This, admittedly, is a very long time but perhaps this person’s journey as a human being had been a very difficult one and all she wanted, was to liberate the soul, so that it was never incarnated on earth again.

When such a person is finally dead and on a bamboo stretcher, it is not the time to show emotion – funerals are a chance to show respect. The process however may seem detached and raw. We did see a tearful man who  appeared to be the eldest grandson of a 95-year old dead person who was being cremated and he was visibly upset but still remained composed. We had watched the process from the time the body arrived at the Ghat until it caught alight. Once the wood was weighed (and paid for), thrown into the allocated shallow pit and set-up as a pyre by outcasts called doms (and while there was an argument nearby on how to build a pyre), the body was unwrapped, the bright material thrown away nearby but the white cloth was not removed. The body was placed on the wood, head facing south.

The chosen family members or a religious person then walks 5 times around the pyre in an anti-clockwise direction, with each circle representing one of the elements. The eldest son or chosen male goes up to Shiva’s burning fire with grass and lights it. He carries it to the pyre and with his back to the body, he lights it.  Ghee which is sprinkled on the body assists in igniting it. The “mourners” will watch the fire take hold and scatter spices and the like over the fire.  After some time, they leave the pyre and return the next day.

There are rituals which must happen after attending the cremation because those that attended are regarded as being impure. Bathing is very important, as is not attending festivals, temples or visiting holy men or swamis.  Mourners may choose to shave their heads. These limitations and others could be for a period of 10 days or even one year. As the departed soul remains conscious of emotional forces directed at it by excessive mourning, the mourning remains composed.

When the chief mourner goes back to the Ghat, water from the Ganges is thrown onto the ash and a bone fragment must be collected. This is thrown into the Ganges. The ash and charred wood are then collected by the doms. They sift the ash and keep any gold they may find.  All the ash is piled together, and after sifting, dumped in the Ganges. No delicate offering takes place; it is all very practical and matter-of-fact.

Some people have been alarmed by my curiosity of death. For me, to see how people treat death (apart from violent and untimely deaths) and the rituals that surround it, is a way to understand life.  Whether one believes in heaven, hell, the afterlife, different planes or a total end upon death, it is preceded by one thing: life. What better way to appreciate and cherish the time we have on this fascinating, frenetic, frustrating and beautiful earth, than to work backwards and to see how a life lived, ends?