Burning is learning or cremation is education as the locals will tell you along the ghats of Varanasi. This ancient city on the banks of the holy Ganges is a place of pilgrimage, especially for the dying. Death in Varanasi guarantees liberation (moksha) from the cycle of life (samsara).
There are two burning ghats in Kashi – Harishchandra Ghat and the larger Manikarnika Ghat. They are run by teams of Untouchables 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This is death on an industrial scale. Mountains of wood for burning surround the ghats – on land and on water – each piece weighed carefully and cost calculated accordingly. Sandalwood is expensive but guarantees to completely burn the body, cheaper woods burn slower and maybe not completely.
Bodies are bathed in the Ganges, then sandalwood sawdust sprinkled over them. A handful of straw is lit from the eternal flame behind the ghat and then a member of the family (who’s head has been shaven) will circle the deceased 5 times with the flame to honour the elements – fire, water, earth, air and ether – before lighting the funeral pyre.
When the burning is complete, the ashes and bones are collected by the eldest son and delivered into the Ganges. The Untouchables linger, hoping to discover a gold tooth or ring that may have survived the fire. Meanwhile the wood keeps coming…