Journalist Juan S. Trillos witnessed the ritual done by Indians to bid farewell to their dead without taboo. 130 bodies are burned every day in Varanasi
His languid legs seem like the last trace that hangs outside the bonfire. His head, torso and arms have already disappeared. They are scorched. Kunal Arya was taken on a bamboo stretcher from Mukti Bhavan, the death hotel in Varanasi. He died there and wanted his cremation on the banks of the Ganges, 676 Km north east of New Delhi.
Arya’s dead body is covered with a white-silk blanket, similar to a bed sheet but decorated with orange calendula flowers. His corpse sinks under the reddish brown waters of the Hindus’ most sacred river; the same waters that conserve cow dung, rotten meat, glass bottles, plastic, arsenic, wood, nickel, and copper.
Arya would eventually transform into ashes and be thrown to the current –as demanded by Hindu ritual—in order to free himself from the life cycle and reach the famous Moksha, in Hindi. But for the various westerners that wander in the dead city, the scene is terrifying.
Seven cows fight against the imminent 42ºC sunrays that roast their cinnamon coloured skin. They hide under the Ganges and contemplate the scene while sticking out their head. A street dog prostrates in front of a crowd that chats with parsimony – waiting for the corpse to reduce to shreds. Eight men. No women.
“They look like the family of that dead body, which has reduced to nothing,” Suresh says. “Hindus call it shuniya.”
Suresh has thick, grey hair. His teeth are green and purple, similar to a coke chewer from South America. His white shirt is unravelled and his black-drill pant is as old as him. He wears a pair of red flip-flops bathed in dust. He has various ingrown toenails.
Suresh and me are in a box on the river, five meters from the corpse. We are glimpsing, on a summer afternoon of April, at one of the public crematories of India.
“Between 15 and 40 corpses burn every day in the Harishchandra Ghat,” he says.
I can see Suresh’s ducts when he opens his mouth. He tells me that cremating a corpse here, in the second biggest public crematory in Varanasi, costs around 62 American dollars. 4,000 Indian rupees.
“An average corpse takes more than four hours to reduce into ashes, my friend”.
According to Suresh, a monk smears a kind of clarified butter called ‘Ghee’ into the cadaver before four lower-class workers, that belong to the caste of ‘untouchables’ – Doms in Hindi – wrap it in a white silk blanket. Those same four people, whose hands no one dates to even shake, take the body towards the Ganges. Then, they submerge it for few minutes and wait for it to dry.
After two hours, relatives take the ‘purified body’ on its bamboo stretcher – without touching it—to an extensive 25kg bed of mango sticks that function as a coffin, before the ‘untouchables’ take it out and cover it with the same amount of wood to form what is known as a funeral pyre.
Finally, they spread sandal powder, incense and more Ghee to get rid of the dead body smell. The Hindu tradition says the closest relative should shave his head, wear white clothes, go around the body three times with a torch in his hand, and touch the corpse’s mouth to ignite the blaze.
A wooden- coloured boat waits for us on the banks of a dark Ganges that looks like a sewer. It’s five in the afternoon. The sunset is coming. Ashish receives us. He has brown eyes that are somewhat disproportionate and bags that seem to hide long nights of alcohol and crack.
We set out on a trip towards the largest crematory in Varanasi. We see people washing clothes. They look tired, but it’s their job. Nine hours of cleaning, crushing and wringing out sheets and towels from some hotels. They hang them out on the banks of the Ganges, in various long stretches of steps leading to the water, which actually looks like the tribunes of the Greek Acropolis. They are called Ghats and there are more than 80 in Varanasi.
Two black peaks appear. They are hammering with synchrony. They are stood on a white mass that looks like the legs of a puppy, floating without any direction. The vultures take the skin off.
“Come, come,” say a group of men with half of their bodies immersed in the Ganges.
I remember my law lecturer here in England. “Do NOT swim in the Ganges even if it is very warm out there.”
“You are lucky that it’s not a human body. There are families that can’t make it to pay for a cremation. They have no chance but to throw the dead bodies in the Ganges. And suddenly, a group of vultures arrive and scoff them,” Ashish says after letting out a puff of smoke.
I ask him about the public crematories. He points his index finger towards 14 tinkling lights. We approach the Manikarnika Ghat, the busiest one in the oldest city in India, where around 100 corpses fade away every day.
“Each corpse is wrapped in a different colour. For instance, a red-silk blanket covers women who have died at their middle fifties. A gold-silk blanket covers both the eldest and the richest women. And white works more for men,” he says.
We discuss the cremation that I saw in the afternoon. I ask him why no women are part of the ritual. He says that funerals are a task for men. Ashish then explains to me that there are some corpses that can’t be burned. Those from women that pass away during their pregnancy. The same happens with the dead bodies of children under two years old and with the corpses of criminals and suicide victims. It is believed that the spirits of the first two groups are pure and don’t need to be cremated. But for the last two, the burden of their sins is not even purified with the strength of the fire.
Arjun is told to wait at least three hours. Sitting in a plastic chair, he stares into the horizon. The sun has bid farewell but the light of the flames that cremate his mum is still on. Two men that apparently belong to the untouchable caste crush with fervour the pyre. Their wood sticks feel the creak of a bone that is as strong as a coin. Yet it’s not scorched. Unlike their first movement, they move two mango sticks quietly and turn around the bone. It’s still white, round, intact.
A blast of wind blows the pyre. Thousands of ashes scatter in the air and hit on Arjun. He covers his mouth, closes his black eyes, but doesn’t give up on moving away from the last remains of his mother. I stay looking at the scene while Nicole, my travelling partner, warns me. I can’t take photos. We, the curious, can wander around the largest crematory in Varanasi. However, we cannot take out our cameras.
A Dom that sees us having a chat with Arjun approaches. He has a shabby-grey shirt, a turban on his head, and a white blanket around his hips. His legs are as thin as a rod; his hands full of calluses, and his nails are as black as those of a coffee peasant. He offers a small tour around the Manikarnika Ghat for some rupees.
“No problem, no problem,” he says.
Nicole takes a step back and decides to join Ashish in front of the boat. I accept and follow him.
Firstly, we climb the stairs of the Ghat towards a roof that gathers millions of ashes. He tells me that they are from some burnt corpses and wood used in the pyre. But after some improvised praying, he smears his finger of ashes and spreads it on my forehead. He sighs something. It’s Hindi. I ask him to translate into English. However, he doesn’t understand me. He knew the speech by heart, and when I ask questions he only says “Yes, yes.”
We go down the stairs. He asks me to approach another pyre. He tells me to stay there for some seconds while the smoke carrying millions of ashes hits my back. Perhaps he wanted me to feel the dead corpses as all the ‘untouchables’ that work every day do to survive; perhaps he wanted me to feel the distress that produces a pyre; perhaps he wanted me to see first-hand the way they desperately manipulate one of the 32,000 corpses that fade away every year on the banks of the Ganges.