Death in Varanasi

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Death is all around you in Varanasi. You breathe in the dust of the bodies being burned along the ghats; you hear the chanting of the people racing through the streets towards the river carrying loved ones enveloped in colourful cloths and flowers. The process of burning of bodies goes on ceaselessly 24 hours like some kind of morbid factory; the elderly widows patiently wait in a nearby hostel for their turn to die. Occasionally you see a bloated body floating along the water that an enterprising bird has turned into a useful perch; a random skull rolling along the ghats or, as on this occasion, an entire skeleton washed up on the shore. 

Life goes on insensitive to death; the people seem oblivious to it. It’s no big deal because you will come back again soon in hopefully a better life. Or better still you will achieve ‘moksha’, or liberation.

 The dogs playing in this photo represent to me this strangely irreverent attitude towards the diseased. The body is insignificant; not even a curiosity. The soul has gone. What’s left is empty. Just a pile of cast off bones that have been stripped of their engine.

Incidentally, the reason why this body hasn’t been cremated is probably because it belonged to a sadhu (an Indian holy man). Along with children under two (who are not considered in need of purity from cremation because their souls are still pure); lepers or people with smallpox, they are allowed to be deposited in the Ganges with a heavy stone to weigh them down. Though as you can see, this doesn’t always achieve its purpose, resulting in a morbid curiosity for the tourists and, well, just a pile of bones for the locals.

 

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