Death and Kasi

The previous post ended with allaghophobia and thanatophobia. This post begins where the last one ended. Before we begin, it must be mentioned that I have been reading and wondering about the surety of a foreign traveller’s visiting the cremation ghats of Kasi and actually watch the rites being performed, taking and posting pictures, interviews etc. and trying to cover the whole process in detail. Whosoever goes to visit the city definitely visits Harishchandra or manikarnika Ghat or both. They find time from their already tight schedule to watch a Hindu cremation. It’s a spectacle, not to be missed. It’s something to flaunt back home, like a trophy. It’s the spectator’s lust for the bizarre that draws them towards the strange way in which the Hindus treat their dead. Travelogues and memoirs are full of the details of these rites. This post is not at all about the details of the already adequately covered process, and the responses to it. It is more personal in nature.

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We begin with Manikarnika Ghat because, of the two cremation ghats I have experienced it less. It is the more popular and mentioned one. In various purans and mahatmyas also, this ghat and the tirth nearby find honourable and prominent mention. The galis that joins this ghat with Chowk/Bans Phatak bring regular traffic to the ghat. It is said that there’s always a pyre burning on this mahashmashan. I can not validate that claim, or prove it wrong, as I have no personal experience of the ghat. Although I have seen the other cremation ghat totally flameless many times. That’s because I used to live nearby and passed the ghat frequently, sometimes many times a day.

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The road on which our gali opened was called Harishchandra Ghat Road because it terminated at that ghat. We used to hear the universal indicator of a dead body in Kasi: Ram Naam Satya Hai regularly. Once upon a time, in the beginning of my time in my gali and life, I used to fear that call. It was nothing like the tolling of the bell that reminds fellow mortals of their own mortality. It was a fear that was instilled through socialization in a very subtle and unconscious manner.Normally, when a procession of any kind passes through a gali, the people who make units of the procession are happy (marriage), angry (protest), aroused and bored in a mixed manner (political) etc. Only those with a dead body, chanting Ram Naam Satya Hai are different. As they reach closer to the cremation ghat, their chants become regular and louder. They are the relatives and neighbours of the dead person and they are either sad or simply unconcerned with the sad ones, performing their neighbourly duty of going to the ghat with the dead. Although seeing a dead body is considered a good omen as it is now free of all ills of worldliness, I was never encouraged to see one. Death was not a topic raised frequently: either at home or amongst friends and acquaintances. Death was not a thing to be taken lightly, or talked about freely and openly. The topic was nearly taboo, and as happens in case of other taboos, it generated fear that stayed somewhere in the back of mind. It had nothing to do with the fear of my own death. How could it be when the fear pre-dates my full realization that death was possible for me too?

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Death and Kasi are synonymous to many, especially in confirmation of the already established and prevalent stereotype. Kasi is called the City of Death because people opted for Kasi waas as the popular belief has it that those who die there get moksh. Time has brought change to Kasi and to the post-death cremation here. Adherence to faith has also been diluted (as is mentioned in many of the purans about Kalyug). Once upon a time, cremation meant only one thing. Now there are two options available. The image to the left above is of the ugly electric crematorium at Harishchandra Ghat, and that to the right is of a chabutra where dead bodies are cremated on pyres.

I have never witnessed the electric cremation process, so I can’t write anything about it from experience, as I can in case of cremation on pyres. It is said that electric cremation is faster and cheaper. It definitely does not directly pollute Gangaji, like the cremation on wood does. Although the chimneys of the crematorium do emit acrid smoke of the same nauseating smell of the burning flesh. Apart from my nearly daily passage through Harishchandra Ghat while either going to or coming from Kedar Ghat, I had also been to the cremation ghat with the dead bodies of my grand parents and of some of my neighbours. As I grew up, I lost at least the sense of the fear of cremations and dead bodies. Passing Harishchandra Ghat and all that occurred there had a curative effect.

Yet, I could not lose the fear of death: my death, despite living in the city of death. Ironic. Isn’t it? I could turn away from it. I could look away. I could run away from it, but I could never defeat it. I could never remove it from my mind. Immortality: physical and complete, seems to be the only effective antidote to that fear. At the present level of human scientific development it seems an impossibility, for me at least. I don’t feel that fear nowadays. Don’t have any time for things like rumination and philosophization any more.

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