Stephen Bailey
Varanasi - The Enchantment of Death
Varanasi - The Enchantment of Death
Stephen Bailey

In the sky there is peace.

Spinning, dipping, swirling, the evasive kites glide high. Over the great river Ganga they soar, an elegy to Varanasi’s streets below.

Every afternoon I come up to the rooftop and watch the kite flyers. The streets baffle at every turn. Yet the kite flyers somehow make sense.

Down below, gangs of wild monkeys patrol their patches. Men carry dead bodies through the streets on green bamboo stretchers. Scam artists seem to lurk on every corner but maybe I misjudge their eyes. The smoke of burning bodies is never far away and there are people everywhere, always, a never-ending stream of people weaving their way through the Varanasi labyrinth.

The interaction of life is inescapable. And I am part of it.

The buildings in Varanasi’s old town are so close to each other a single prostrate cow can block the entire street. People have tried to get as close as they could to the sacred entrances of the Ganga, each person erecting their narrow house wonky to maximise meagre space.

Walls lean outwards so gaps between rooftops are ideal for novice roof jumpers. On the ground there is hardly space for a bicycle. Motorised vehicles can’t get in.

The shape of these buildings precludes sunlight, leaving the city in a permanent shadow. But it isn’t gloomy. The shadows make everything manageable.

Without the shade you would have to walk head down, shielding your eyes from the intensity because no building is only a house. Every ground floor room is open, housing shops, yogurt cafes, mini-factories, guesthouses, trinket stores, lassi sellers, or a little store to pick up a cup of masala chai.

These narrow streets seem to be always flooded with people. Some just hanging out and catching up on gossip, others playing speed chess. Then the people following a body towards a funeral, and those like me, just wandering, passing through.

On these streets it is impossible for me to go more than a few seconds without someone engaging me in conversation, asking if I want to do or buy or believe something, inquiring about my home country, saying hello and “welcome to my India” (India always belongs to somebody in Varanasi, nobody ever says “welcome to India”).

Elsewhere in India the relentless drone of motorbike horns and rickshaw exhausts often dominates the soundtrack, drowning out delightful audio nuances. In Varanasi I can open my ears.

Ritual bell ringing coming from a hidden temple, hawkers calling up to the rooftops with metronomic consistency, animals bellowing freely, then speakers crackling as they emit spiritual music, and, of course, I can always hear the natter of people on streets. No single sound is overpowering.

The “chai chai chai” shout of a café owner fades as I turn a corner. The choked intonation of a funeral chant dominates only briefly, as six men charge past and I follow intrigued, trying to keep pace with a body wrapped tightly in orange on the stretcher.

As we approach the Burning Ghat a man stops me. He looks the part — orange robes and a straggly beard — and claims to be a volunteer from a hospice that helps poor people without families have a dignified death.

He leads me to an eerie abandoned building and a second floor balcony overlooking burning piles of wood. I can feel the heat and see the smoke rise from seven large piles of timber, the fires burning beneath bodies in differing degrees of recognition.

A solitary detached leg smoulders in one fire, a face shrinks in another, the flesh burnt away to leave a frail harrowing skull. Above other fires the skin of the dead remains pale.

Baba G tells me that being cremated ceremonially like this, at the entrance to the Ganga, releases the soul. Many Hindu people save for their own send-off, believing that salvation comes with this final of rituals.

I don’t know what I am thinking now — there’s too much going on to think about myself.

In full view of burning bodies four locals bathe, washing themselves with soap and jumping in the ashen water to clean.

Cows plod around in the shallow water, munching away at discarded flowers that once decorated a body. Hoping to find a golden tooth, two boys sift the riverbed.

Stray dogs are also here, scouring around for the remains of people whose family couldn’t afford the 200kg of wood required to turn a body completely into ash.

Every day and night of the year the bodies burn here. All that usually remains is part of a hip bone or a breastbone, a final reminder to ceremonially sink into the Ganga.

Why can I not stop staring at the scene? Perhaps it is because in this place that should have been so depressing, I see only beauty.

The harmonious contrast between green bamboo and the orange body wrap. The gracefulness of a funeral procession. The vitality of the flowers that decorate a corpse, all bright and yellow and sparkling with life. The holy fire that hasn’t been extinguished for 2,000 years. The precision with which relatives walk around a body for one final look.

The scene is captivating, the death enchanting. And there appears to be no mourning. Grieving in this place is believed to prevent the soul from being released from the body. Or so says Baba G.

A random assortment of homeless people on the verge of death loiter near me, hidden in the shadows. Shaking her arms a frail decomposing woman emerges, the whites of her eyes shining in the shadows.

Baba G explains that I must contribute to a universal wood fund for poor people, in return for being allowed to witness the spectacle. Is this a scam? I’m happy to contribute, but as people surround me I feel disorientated and lost, a foreigner in a foreign place, stumbling around confused in the gloom.

Now the same scenes of enchantment become overpowering. I need to leave, to escape burning bodies, clutching hands and all those floating souls.

I’m moving too fast, head down, getting lost in the labyrinth. People are trying to tellme something, anything, cows are getting in the way, all the sounds and people are just too much. And I know that I’m just an imposter. What did I really hope to learn here? I’m just gawping and passing through, trying to unravel what I find along the way.

Somehow I find my homestay and I go straight to the roof. Ravi is there, flying his kite in a gaudy striped shirt.

His friends and younger brothers watch on, learning and admiring as Ravi sails his kite higher and higher to take on an opponent.

I watch enthralled, away from the urban jungle, sitting and listening to my thoughts, trying to make sense of something strange that moves through me. And gazing up I find that in the sky there is peace.

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