I wrote this text in September 2013 after someone died in the family of a close friend of mine in Varanasi. I never published it before for confidentiality reasons, but I am very happy that I recounted this intense but amazing day of my life in Banaras in so much detail, because it gives me goose bumps to read it again today. And so I decided to invent new characters to make the piece completely anonymous and to make it public, because I think Hindus have some important, beautiful lessons to teach us about how we deal with death. And one obvious aspect of Banaras that makes it so special is precisely that there, in Kashi or the City of Light, death is a completely normal part of everyday life.

Varanasi, Banaras, Kashi - sunrise on the holy river Ganges (2014)

Varanasi, Banaras, Kashi – sunrise on the holy river Ganges (2014)

This morning my good friend Deepa’s grandfather died. I knew her grandfather quite well and I had liked him a lot. He had been a great classical musician of Banaras but he had not played his instrument for many years. He was very old, and he had been so sick for the last few months that I could barely recognise him. I wasn’t sure what I was meant to say when Deepa told me the news on the phone, but I spoke to her softly and I asked her what I had to do, if I should come to her house. It was the first time I was personally involved with mourning in India so I wanted to know the rules. She just told me to come to her house the following morning before the cremation. After I hung up I paused and started to focus on my breath. A ball had already gathered up and was burning inside my throat and then tears swelled up and began to run down my cheeks. I remained seated quietly until it passed.

Death in the Hindu house

At about 7pm the same day one of our common friends Ramesh phoned me. He asked me if I had heard the news. I said yes, and he told me “Let’s go.” “Now?” I asked, but I was happy because I really wanted to go now. Not only did I want to accompany my friend and her family at this painful time, I had also seen countless cremations near the Ganges river and I wanted to see what happened before a cremation within the family house. I hadn’t had my dinner yet so I quickly ate a piece of bread with peanut butter because I didn’t know how long I was going there for, then Ramesh came to pick me up on his motorbike. When we arrived at Deepa’s house it was quite crowded with people sitting on the floor of the hallway around the deceased body. Women on one side and men on the other. No-one really spoke but no-one was crying. I went to sit near Deepa, and Ramesh went to sit with the men. I quietly asked my friend if she was okay and I looked at her grandfather’s body.

Death is a sad moment, but it is also a very important time of life. I have always been fascinated by it, ever since my mother passed away when I was ten. I always wanted to study it, to feel it, to embrace it. In my twenties, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross‘s book On Death and Dying in which she recounts her experiences of accompanying dying patients, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and other books about death and near-death-experience enchanted me and taught me that embracing death helps you to be more alive. More recently, Eckhart Tolle filled me with love as I heard him say in an interview that “Life is timeless and indestructible. Death is not the opposite of life; it is only the opposite of birth.” So I wanted to be around my friend’s grandfather death, because I wanted to offer my presence, my energy, my love to his departing soul and to his family, and I wanted to learn more about death for myself too.

Mala market, Varanasi (2008)

Mala market, Varanasi (2008)

The body was lying on a huge block of ice wrapped in fabric. He was covered with a bed sheet decorated with a few garlands of flowers (mala), and he also had a mala around his neck. His eyes were closed and he looked peaceful as though he was sleeping; in my eyes it was clearly a relief that he was finally free from the pain. I don’t know why there was cotton inside his nostrils. On each side of his head were two pots of tulsi plant, which my friend told me was used to purify the departing soul. On the floor behind the body’s head, a bunch of at least five incense sticks were burning, which my friend’s cousins were taking care to replace after they had burnt out. It took me quite a while to notice that for lack of better incense holder, the sticks were stuck inside a potato at the end of a cricket bat!! That made me smile, for I love how Indians make do with whatever they find even in the gravest situations. I kept looking at the dead face, trying to recognise the man I had known. I kept wanting to touch his forehead but couldn’t. I was studying his traits to try and find the difference between a dead body and someone alive. I guess he looked kind of dry and empty but it wasn’t shocking at all. What marked me though was that his chest didn’t move; it didn’t rise and fall. Looking at this motionless chest made me want to breathe even more deeply and it made me feel grateful to be alive.

People were coming and going to say goodbye and pay their respect to the great musician for the last time. They came, touched the cold feet, sat for a while and went. I asked my friend how it had happened. She told me everything in the most natural way. Her grandfather had suffered from a strong fever in the night and he had left his body quietly with his family by his side. She had been trying to feed him but she had noticed that something was wrong and he had trouble breathing, so she had called her uncle. All the family had come round and they had phoned the doctor. His blood pressure had gradually decreased down to two! Then his eyes had started rolling, his breath had become deeper and rougher and his pulse had stopped, then everything was over.

I just love the fact that death is a family matter in India. You don’t call impassive professionals to take away your loved ones’ body; you keep them at home and you look after them yourself. Ramesh and I left at about 10:00 that evening, and we were invited to come back the next morning before the cremation. The family wasn’t going to sleep; they were going to sit by the body for the whole night. They were not going to leave his body from the second he had died until his cremation! How beautiful is that? No sterilised morgue, no concealing grotesque make-up, no morbid emotionless undertakers… Indians deal with the death of their loved ones themselves; they see it and they accept it from a tender age! It is such a healthy attitude!

In the house before the cremation

So the following morning I got ready to go to Deepa’s house. I wasn’t sure what to wear, but I chose a new off-white suit, because white is the colour of mourning in India. It was a half-sleeve top and it was going to keep me far too warm in this sticky hot weather, but I was happy to look nice and smart. I put on my old dirty walking sandals though, because I knew I would be walking in mud on the burning ghat. As bodies are carried up to the cremation area by walk we would be walking there from the house, so Ramesh didn’t want to come by motorbike and I hired a cycle-rickshaw to pick him up on the way. When I saw him arrive he was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. “Are you going like this!?” I asked. Of course I had known this all along, because I had seen cremations before: Hindus don’t wear nice clothes at times of death. And after a cremation (how could I forget?) they take a bath in the holy river, so what would be the point of wearing nice clothes?! Somehow I hadn’t registered before because I hadn’t been personally involved. I hadn’t thought it right; I had used my good old European mind to deal with the situation!

Harischandra Ghat, the small cremation ghat of Banaras

Harischandra Ghat, the small cremation ghat of Banaras (2012)

We arrived at Deepa’s house. It looked just like the previous night, as though no-one had moved. More people came to say good-bye and pay their respect to the great musician. One teacher from the university placed a mala around his feet and touched them in respect. A sitar player came with his five-year old son and instructed the boy to touch the deceased musician’s feet, which he did with due respect. People were chatting quietly, including two old bent ladies. We were waiting for some of Deepa’s cousins whose plane from Mumbai was due to land at 11:30. We sat and sat and sat. I was too shy to move from fear of doing anything wrong, but eventually I had to have some water because the heat was already starting to give me a headache. At 12:15 the cousins arrived. As soon as they entered, most women of the family burst out in tears. The three young men wore shorts and t-shirts and they had no luggage. Without a single sign of greetings towards their family they came to stand near their grandfather’s body and started crying. One cried like a baby with his face in his hands, the second just stared at the body crying quietly, and the third just looked down looking very sad, but no tears rolled. I looked at my friend who had lowered her face to conceal her emotions. One of Deepa’s uncles suddenly burst out in tears, but after about ten minutes of expressing their grief, all the men stopped crying, and without a pause suddenly everything started! It was so quick!

Old Varanasi house (2014)

Old Varanasi house (2014)

The men ordered the women to stand on one side of the room. They uncovered the deceased body which triggered more loud cries from the women. No tears from the old, experienced bent ladies though. The body was shockingly skinny with his chest protruding, his legs were spread apart on each side like a frog and he was still wearing a nappy. The men lifted the body to place it onto a wooden board, which revealed the lifelessness of his falling limbs and triggered yet another burst of tears and cries from the women. By that time my tears had stopped though; I was quite serene and very curious. Looking at lifeless limbs fall makes death look more real than when a body seems to sleep motionless, but I was fine. Now the family had to smear the entire body with what I saw looked like ghee (clarified butter). All the members of the close family proceeded one by one to apply a little ghee as they could – this looked a lot more painful for the women than for the men, but even Deepa’s ten-year-old niece complied, in tears obviously. The daughters of the deceased, Deepa’s aunts were quite hysterical. I was watching this incredible scene from a distance, standing behind the women because I felt I wasn’t close enough to intervene, and I certainly didn’t want to steal any moment in that painful but crucial time of their lives. It was unbelievable to be part of this and I felt extremely lucky to be there – I felt lucky, serene and full of love. I wrapped my arms around Deepa’s younger sister to offer her some of my calmness and comfort while she cried loudly. I was stroking her back as though she was my child, while thinking such moments are amazing for removing all barriers of inhibition between human beings. After the body was completely smeared in ghee, the men removed his nappy. There were many people in front of me so I couldn’t see anything, but I looked away until they had covered his genitals with a white cloth. Then they wrapped the whole body in a big white shroud, except for his face, and they smeared his forehead with red-coloured powder – the same powder that is normally used for the tikka (red mark between the eyebrows) in temples. The house was very loud with the men shouting instructions at each other as they proceeded. Once the body was ready – and it had been pretty quick – the men immediately lifted it onto their shoulders and started chanting the typical ‘Shri Ram Naam satya hai‘ (the name of God is truth) as they took it outside and placed it onto a bamboo ladder.

I think the next step was considered impure, which is why it had to be carried out outside the house. Everyone ran after the carrying men to cram themselves at the door and look at what was coming next. I couldn’t see anything because I could hardly move forward through the crowd of women, but the men were now covering the body with a shiny red cloth and adorning it with flower malas and such. Soon a clay pot filled with water was brought from inside the house and placed on a motorbike; I didn’t know why. The women kept shouting and crying, and Deepa’s young niece had climbed onto the other motorbike to look at the scene as she sobbed. I hardly saw the what was happening because I hardly had any space to breathe, and again I didn’t want to steal a single inch of sight from the family’s women, so I stayed at the back. When the decoration work was done, again without losing a second, the men lifted the ladder onto their shoulder, and off they went, chanting ‘Shri Ram Nam satya hai‘ – just like I see it almost everyday in the streets of the holy City of Light – except I knew the deceased this time. As the men left with the body, the women hurried, screaming, to try and touch their loved one one last time. When he was gone forever, they returned back inside the house to sit and carry on crying. One woman took the clay pot from the motorbike and violently threw it onto the ground in the lane in front of the house, as though to symbolise that their elder’s soul (the water) had splashed outside of his broken body (the clay pot).

I had wanted to follow the men’s procession to the Ganges, but it was just impossible. Hindu women don’t go to see cremations. I had asked Ramesh why the night before, and he had told me funeral pyres are too unbearable for most women to watch, so it has become part of the tradition that they just don’t go to the cremation ground at all. I told him I wanted to come, and he replied that I could. But it was impossible to follow the men as they left the house, not only because the crowd of women getting back into the house physically made it impossible to walk in the opposite direction, but also because watching their pain I could just not leave them like that. Being a Western women gives me huge privileges in India because I am a woman and I am protected as such; however I enjoy the freedom of men. But now my heart would not have let me go with the men. I was a women and I had to stay with them; I had to share their pain and offer them my presence. So I returned back into the house to sit with them. Deepa’s aunts were crying very loudly as though limbs had been torn off their bodies and it was painful to watch. I waited for a while until they all calmed down and then asked Deepa if I could go. I was shy to stand up and go but I gathered the courage and obviously it was fine. I put my hand to my heart as good-bye although none of the women looked and I left.

On the cremation ground

A family brings a body to Harischandra Ghat for cremation (2008)

A family brings a body to Harischandra Ghat for cremation (2008)

I walked to the Ganges alone. I was happy to be alone because I felt like it would have been odd to be the only women – and a white woman – to walk behind a procession of grieving Indian men. The heat was almost unbearable and my head was still aching, so I drank a lot of water. On the way I was wondering whether I should go to the cremation, although Ramesh had told me that I could. I knew it was silly because as a tourist I had seen many cremations before, but somehow when you are involved with a family customs matter a lot more. As I arrived at the cremation ground, a man I have seen pestering tourists for five years tried to catch me. He told me to go on top of a temple to watch the cremation because down there only family members were allowed, but I told him in Hindi that I was part of the family, and one of Deepa’s friends who was there told him the same thing. The man left me alone and I walked towards Deepa’s relatives. The funeral pyre was ready and they were about to put the body onto it, but it was crowded and I couldn’t see very well.

Funeral pyre, Harischandra Ghat (2008)

Funeral pyre, Harischandra Ghat (2008)

I was feeling a lot lighter now that I was outside because I was no longer comparing my condition to that of the Indian women in the house. Besides I knew Harischandra Ghat well (I stayed in a hotel right above the cremation ghat for over a month in 2008, and these photos were taken from my hotel room) and I had seen many cremations there before, so I felt like I was on familiar ground. In addition, many musicians I knew from concerts had only come for the cremation. I said hello to many as happily as I say hello to them at concerts. No-one was crying. It was also really funny to see all these great musicians wearing simple shorts and t-shirts whereas I normally see them in immaculate kurta-pajama at concerts! My English friend Sarah who studies tabla was there, so I also had the company of a European woman just like me. Later an Indian woman even came; I don’t know if she was a relative or a passer-by, but I was very happy to see an Indian woman, and she wore a suit not a saree. She looked more emancipated somehow.

In Hinduism the eldest man of the family has to get shaven bold and to wear two pieces of white fabric as his only clothes – just like Mahatma Gandhi – to light up the funeral pyre. A few minutes later I saw Deepa’s eldest uncle in his white attire and completely bald. I could hardly recognised him! He looked so different! After he had lit the pyre, the dead musician’s sons and grandsons went to touch his feet to pay their respect for the very last time…

Cremation in the rain!

Monsoon on Harischandra Ghat (2008)

Monsoon on Harischandra Ghat & the crematorium (2008)

After a few minutes I felt a big drop of rain on my left shoulder. “Oh oh…” I thought. And another… The fire had just been lit and it started pouring down with rain!  Within minutes we were soaked! Everyone went to hide underneath the building of the electric crematorium. The Ganges had considerably retreated after the floods that year, but huge mounts of mud were still covering the stairs to produce a sort of fake ground. A small river of rain water was forming itself and started splitting our shelter into two parts, and within minutes it had become a small torrent… Most of us went back a couple of meters up onto the road and into a temple which was a much safer shelter. The rain had distracted everyone from the sadness of the event. Everyone was soaked and everyone was talking about the rain and how to stay safe. We waited quite a while in the temple but it was a confined space and the smoke from the cremations were burning my eyes, on top of the headache, the hunger and the feeling of dehydration. Sarah was chatting with a sitar player who usually looks really grumpy but who turned out to be a very friendly chap. Some of the men who had stayed longer underneath the crematorium had to leave their unsafe shelter because the mud was getting wetter and wetter and it was becoming dangerous. We looked at them from the temple; they had real trouble getting back up into the swampy mud, and at each step they sank into the mud down to above their knee. Eventually though they made it! It was past 1 or 2 o’clock and it would take at least three more hours for the body to burn. I ventured outside back in the rain which had calmed down a little but not completely, to check out the state of our previous shelter. The rain water had cleared the mud completely by at least three meters to reveal the steps and the pillars underneath the crematorium!!! It was still safe by the funeral pyre though but it was quite tricky to walk into the dirty wet mud and back there now, and the smoke was killing my eyes. After another short while Sarah and I decided to leave. We told Deepa’s uncle who was around that we were leaving. I was going to miss the end of the cremation, the throwing of the ashes into the holy water, the purifying bath in the Ganges, but I couldn’t take anymore.

Flooded streets by Harischandra Ghat, just a month before the cremation

Flooded streets by Harischandra Ghat, August 2013 (it was dry at the time of the cremation!)

Sarah and I walked back onto the main road to have a thali (meal) in a nearby restaurant that I knew, and then we shared a cycle rickshaw back to our homes. When I got back I realised how tired I was. It was about 3 o’clock. I felt dehydrated, weak, and also really heavy as though the dark energy of death was still wrapping me. I drank a lot of water, collapsed onto my bed and fell asleep for a whole hour. I woke up feeling better, but only after I had drank a litre of water filled with rehydrating salts did I feel like my whole self again.

Hindu mourning

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For the next ten days, Deepa’s eldest uncle would be wearing his white garments and perform a ritual every morning and evening, which consists in lighting a candle up onto a pole in a nearby kund (holy water basin) and to pour water below a holy pipal tree. He would do this to feed his father’s departing soul and to allow him to leave our human Realm in peace, as otherwise his soul would wander and become a ghost. For those next ten days and as long as the soul hadn’t departed peacefully, the members of his family would be considered impure, they would not go outside, and no visitor would be allowed to eat food in their house. On the morning of the tenth day, all the men of the family would go to the main ghat to get their head clean-shaven, and on the thirteenth day the family would invite all their relatives, friends, and members of their community for a huge meal. Only after that would their life resume as normal…

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