Like moths to the flickering flames, the (Western) travellers in Varanasi are drawn towards the burning pyres. The spectacle is simply irresistible. I have read several blogs and books of people who have been there and have found a detailed and vivid pictorial description of the process of the burning of a Hindu corpse as the climactic moment of the piece, even the ones that feature the city for only a couple of paragraphs. No, I don’t oversimplify, stereotype or choose the worst to universalize. Not only does an average traveller who comes for just a round of the city but also the more seasoned one fall for it. I remember the mixture of revulsion, anger and pity felt after witnessing Pierre Loti’s dormant necrophilia surfacing from the depths of his unconscious at Manikarnika Ghat. Why? Let’s have a look at the piece itself:
I now see her long closed eyes, with their dark fringes, and her straight and delicate nose and her full cheeks. Lips of an exquisite shape are half closed on her pearly teeth. She must have been very beautiful, and no doubt that some evil chance came to cut her off in the full bloom of youth, for she has changed so little. The pink muslin in which she is wrapped has become wet and clings transparently to her, clings to her bosom and loins and does not hide her matchless nudity. . . . To think that all this loveliness should have been given to common porters, and that fire will claim it soon ! …
I should like to stay longer to see them place the young goddess on her pyre, but that will not be for a long while yet, and the damp, transparent muslin almost makes it embarrassing to look further at her. It seems sacrilege to look at her since she is dead. No ! Let us away. I will return later when her time has come. (Loti 250)
His was neither the first nor the last instance of seeing the barbaric, cannibalistic facet of human in stinct push its civilized part aside and rush moth-like towards the spectacle of the burning human corpse, ready to devour the well cooked course before the competition arrived.
Yes I am angry, very angry with the way the Western(ized) eyes choose to stare shamelessly at and make public of what is essentially a very private event. I grew up so close to Harishchandra Ghat that the easterlies used to bring the distinct odour of the burning skin and flesh to our flat rooftops at night. At first, we used to feel revulsion, but then, after repeated and unavoidable exposures, it became naturalized – a part of our rooftop night life.
So, I can tell from my first hand experiences of lingering on and around the cremation ghat, watching Indian and international travellers pass by, stop for a moment or stay longer – how peoples of different origins and civilizations react to the burning pyre. I fear that I may commit the mistake of generalization and simplification. So, I must admit that I don’t claim that I have any statistically significant conclusions. Neither does whatever I say come with one hundred percent validity, but whatever I put here comes after an honest and deep recollection, sans any hidden agenda.
The peoples who arrive at the ghat are either Indians or not. The Indians who pass by are of two categories: Hindus and Non-Hindus. Among the Hindus, There are the Banarsis and Non-Banarsis. There’s nothing new there for the Banarsis. So, they don’t stand or sit and stare. Rather, they hastily pass on. In fact, they avoid crossing the cremation ghats on their path as the air of the place is associated with ritual impurity. So, they must take a dip in Gangaji after crossing the cremation ghat, if they go by the book. They have no interest in watching the gradual burning of the bodies as they know that their turn will come, sooner or later. The Banarsi non-Hindus are culturally similar to the Hindus in avoiding the cremation ghats on their route. The Non-Banarsi Hindus may pranam the holy corpses and go on. They would not stop and try to take a couple of snaps, like the sahibs of the Colonial era used to collect tiger or lion heads, to take back home as many trophies. I have not seen many Non-Banarsi Non-Hindus on those ghats either.
But the Western traveller to Varanasi would arrive in packs to feast their eyes upon the burning alien corpse. An occasional brown skinned person may be a part of the pack sometimes, but the person is not there for any hedonistic appreciation of the process. He is their tour guide. I don’t know for sure whether supply creates its demand, or demand generates supply. I don’t understand the principles of microeconomics well. So, I’m not sure whether the tourist guides created the whole market of funeral tourism or they just capitalized upon the available opportunity.
Lonelyplanet (http://www.lonelyplanet.com/india/uttar-pradesh/varanasi/sights/river/ghats) has an article of 1073 words on the more than ninety ghats of Varanasi and it devotes 219 words (20.4% of the total volume) to Manikarnika Ghat only. When people go to that page they will be naturally drawn towards that ghat and the process of Hindu cremation. Now that’s what I call funeral tourism. Varanasi has a lot more to offer than what it’s being made famous for. A lot!
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