The ghats of Varanasi (Shutterstock)
The ghats of Varanasi (Shutterstock)

Essay: Death in Varanasi

Steeped in myth, legend and hoary religion, Varanasi is a paradox. It’s India’s oldest living city, but also the city of death with the world’s only 24-hour crematorium. Varanasi allegorises Life and Death, Light and Darkness, Good and Evil
By Devanshi Mody
UPDATED ON FEB 18, 2021 03:51 PM IST

Death in Venice is a famous book by Thomas Mann. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is a less famous book by Geoffrey Dyer. Life and Death in Varanasi isn’t a book. But it could be a metaphor. Steeped in myth, legend and hoary religion, Varanasi is a paradox. It’s India’s oldest living city, but also the city of death with the world’s only 24-hour crematorium. Varanasi allegorises Life and Death, Light and Darkness, Good and Evil. Perceiving Varanasi with the Mind’s Eye perhaps opens fresh vistas on a done-to-death (pun not intended) destination.

Essay: Death in Varanasi
Essay: Death in Varanasi

“Park the car near that cow” Travel Bureau’s guide instructs the driver. Curious utterance I think, probably because I haven’t seen too many cows to park near in recent times and it’s especially bizarre in Varanasi where there are cows, lots of them, but no parking spot, probably because of the cows. Frivolous though it seems, this incident exemplifies changelessness in change in a city “older than history” as Mark Twain said. Swish new bridges fly across the Ganges today; yet it’s perfectly normal for a landmark to be a configuration of cows in the street…

Jostling past the bovine obstructions through mazed ways brings us upon the ghats whose 7km conjure the seven-metre silk sari Varanasi is fabled for, the criss-cross of alleys to them like some intricate weave. We stand on antediluvian steps before a sprawl of water as blue as the skies, as pure as consciousness. This is the Ganga. I’m astonished. A decade ago the sacred river was a heaving mass of bathers in a saturnine mush of mangled flowers, contused clothing, plastic bottles strangled in an entwinement of plastic bags and bobbing crescents of dead cattle… From an embodiment of tamas the Ganga has transmuted to a symbol of satva which the setting sun turns into a fiery representation of rajas.

The bloody waters at sunset remind me that someone averred he could murder and then dip in the Ganga, which would instantaneously bleach his darkest deeds. Were this perception, of questionable antecedents, true (that bathing in the Ganga is a cleanse-all-sin, moksha-administering enterprise) it would render nonsensical The Gita, a doctrine of surrender and renunciation, prerequisites for that elusive moksha. Gangetic ablutions don’t fast-track moksha. They only defile our rivers.

Dashashwamedh Ghat is dressed for the daily Ganga aarti whose commercial aspects dismayed me 10 years ago. I expected Sanskrit chants, meditating sanyansins and hypnotic mystique. Instead, on filthy ghats mendicant “sadhus” roamed whilst the aarti was a costume drama with loud recorded bhajans in Hindi for soundtrack.

The Ganga aarti (Shutterstock)
The Ganga aarti (Shutterstock)

Unimpassioned I sit now, with the usual throngs, behind the podia for the aarti. On the Ganga array tourist-laden boats. The waters are bestrewn with myriad dancing clay lamps. This time there’s a surprising prelude in Sanskrit, recorded but entrancing. Young priests arrive, the ceremony initiates, slipping into Hindi bhajans. Ornate lamps are lit and the ritual attains its apotheosis. The white camphor signifying satva converts to the flames of rajas consumed finally into black soot evoking tamas. The ritual is like a hieroglyphics for the eternal interplay of the gunas whose enmeshment The Gita admonishes extrication from with the lamp of knowledge (Bhagavad Gita 10.11).

Incipient flames of illumined lamps suggest Life. As the priests swirl the lamps in elaborate arabesques the delicate flames curl, twirl, tower, vigorously soaring into devouring flames like those engulfing corpses cremated at Manikarnika Ghat. The flames collapse from tall heights into charred clumps black as Death and tenuous as ashes that cremated bodies reduce to. The ceremony, initially emblazoning Life, finally reminds that Varanasi is emblematic of Death which hangs over it like a damp cloth.

The aarti illumines mentally. Then you’re assaulted by a billion blinding lights from Varanasi’s shops that spread like wild fire in the chaos of humans, animals, rickshaws, motorbikes, a cacophonous frenzy of horns and garish tumult of colours. It’s a miracle that anyone survives in India’s oldest living city as a stream of motorbikes constantly incites near-death experiences.

There are perhaps more shops in one street of Varanasi than in all the world. Shops incarnate Desire. Desire engenders Life. Moksha demands Desire-slaying. Yet, ironically, “devotees” go from aarti to shops in a voracious avidity of acquisition, thinking the Ganga will dissolve karmic shackles.

Haunting now is my hotel Tree of Life’s bathroom (well, yes) with its gilded leaf-shaped sink on which a bird perches echoing the parabolic jiva bird of the Mundaka and Svetasvatara Upanishads enjoying the Tree of Life, the wish-fulfilling Kalpa Taru of the 15th chapter of The Gita, and thereby sustaining the life cycle.

As long as the jiva relishes the Tree of Life he won’t reach Siva. He’ll only end up at Manikarnika Ghat, the 24-hour crematorium, accessed via labyrinthine paths so constricted that buffalos graze their flanks processing past heaped dung and an assortment of miasma-generating things. Miracle, again, that we reach Manikarnika Ghat amidst the ceaseless assailment of bikes, pall-bearers and bovines. It’s like a descent into Hades, this tenebrous, macabre, stifling network of streets where the living dead (and perhaps the living deaf, for the sound is bludgeoning) endure. The grid of alleys also recalls Venice’s squalid, seldom-mentioned backstreets minus the onslaught of bulls, buffalo, bikes and bodies, instead endowed with gelataria.

We eventually reach Manikarnika Ghat pillared in high stacks of logs destined for funeral pyres. The perpetual wood-hewing sounds like the sinister tick-tock of a clock announcing: your Time is up. A brightly-enshrouded body is boated across to Manikarnika Ghat recalling Charon rowing the newly deceased across Styx to Hades. If Lethe erases memory in preparation for reincarnation the Ganga, from whose waters the body is now anointed, supposedly washes clean your karmic slate, precluding reincarnation. Seems like The Gita (IV.32)’s “raft of Knowledge” has been mistaken for a boat ride across the Ganga so that cremation in Varanasi is popularly and ardently believed to enable crossing the sea of Samsara into the Ocean of Eternity…During this parenthesised thought in mental realms the new body is lain on a pyre, besides others already burning like bush fires. Deciding the voyeuristic intrusion on someone’s funeral tasteless we withdraw.

Next morning, we’re queuing at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Our hotel’s executive chef quipped that more police than pilgrims attend the temple given the contiguous mosque. But, if once the presence of skull-capped youth on the ghats was construed as deliberately provocative, tensions have eased.

This temple, one of the 12 Jyotirlingas (shrines where Siva apparently shone in a blazing shaft of light), didn’t stagger me a decade ago as some temples of Tamil Nadu do. It doesn’t inspire me now, perhaps because I’m a reluctant pilgrim. Unfathomable why people MUST journey to certain temples. I find the Adi Kumbeshwarar Temple in Kumbakonam infinitely more soul-stirring than the incomparably more celebrated Vishwanath Temple. Indeed, I’m annoyed our coffee supplier in Chennai told my brother he brought his father’s ashes all the way from Chennai to Varanasi to immerse in the Ganga, inclining my brother to feel we were remiss towards our own father who passed away contemporaneously and impelling him to Varanasi a year on. In fact, it’s my father’s first death anniversary, which I’d expected to spend at home in meditative calm. Instead, in the battering summer sun we wait in an immense queue indefinitely lengthened by the relentless infiltration of bands of Tamil pilgrims. Verbal and eventually physical aggression ensues. I don’t quite understand how leaving your fellow pilgrims in a state of anatomical dislocation advances one towards moksha.

When I moved to Chennai from France I’d queue patiently at the Ananta Padmanabhanswamy Temple only to have a block of old Brahmin ladies insert themselves before me. Eventually, I told one, “There’s a queue.” I decided that if I didn’t protest she’d teach her grandchildren that queue-jumping is quite alright, thereby perpetuating the system. But as the head priest approached I thought I’d had it. Back then Chennai temples didn’t always appreciate non-Tamil, non-brahmins. Surprisingly, the priest instructed the lady to respect the queue.

In the streets of the city. (Shutterstock)
In the streets of the city. (Shutterstock)

In Varanasi, however, despite escalating commotion, loitering police don’t intervene. Then, at the temple’s entrance a constable manifests, indiscriminately evicting every Tamil from the queue. And with no little barbarity, causing an elderly lady to tumble, which another policeman remarks at with a Laodicean casualness. The constable is unremitting amidt encouraging hoots of “Teach Rajanikanth a lesson.” Through all this insanity a priest sits in a courtyard, his back to us, deeply absorbed in a newspaper’s Bollywood section.

When a Tamil who has been queuing peacefully for hours in front of my brother is removed Samir defends the victim’s legitimate presence. The policeman remains heedless, generating more cheering “Teach Rajanikanth a lesson.”

Where is the justice in this? There is none. But a poetic justice impresses upon us when we chance upon Benares Hindu University’s museum Bharat Kala Mandir, whose existence everyone claimed ignorance of. There’s a splendid collection of paintings, sculptures and exhibits including from Harappan times. Moreover, it enshrines the legacy of Swiss artist Alice Bonar who lived in Varanasi and leaves, besides masterpieces, a profound and acute understanding of Vedanta and The Gita. This especially informs her stupendous triptych Prakrit, Viswarupa and Kali, which are personifications on canvas of Creation, Sustenance, Death.

We come on two consecutive days to immerse ourselves in not the Ganga but the museum’s edifying, elevating artwork. Someone hails us. To see tourists in this neglected grove of artistic treasure is a rarity. To see the same tourists on consecutive days is a miracle. We immediately realise he is South Indian. Deepak Bhasathan is co-curator and custodian of Varanasi’s art, culture and heritage that languishes in woeful desolation. I remark that were this collection in Paris we’d be queuing as long as we did outside the Vishwanath Temple. It’s not the superiority of the collection elsewhere but their strenuous marketing of it and tourists aren’t any more cultivated in Paris where they enter the Louvre, click 20 million photos of the Mona Lisa and leave. Deepak agrees it’s all about generating hype for tick-the-list tourism. He feels visiting this museum is more representative of India’s heritage than going to the Vishwanath Temple. We certainly find the museum more spiritually awakening.

Deepak’s colleague, a Tamil artist R Ganeshan, joins us. I enquire about a marvellous private art gallery I visited 10 years ago, which nobody now knows of. He agrees the ABC Gallery was indeed superb but no longer exists. “What happened to it?” I ask. “Oh, it was converted into a mall.”

I can’t think of anything more significative of Death.

After reading physics, French and philosophy at Oxford, Devanshi Mody gadded about the globe until her parents wearied of funding her errancy. And so, she stumbled quite fortuitously into travel writing.

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