The burning begins the learning.Varanasi, India, March 2008
I have come here, like all the other pilgrims, seeking something I lost so long ago; my inner eye is beginning to forget its shape. This is my first time in India, but I wind my way through the alleys of Varanasi like I’ve always lived here: dodging rickshaws, Brahma cattle, groups of shouting children, chai-wallahs, beggars and piles of dog shit. My limbic system thrums to the scent of fresh naan, aloo and incense, mingled with rotting bodies and human waste and pungent sweat. I round a sudden corner and all of it fades to a background roar as I find myself brought to a halt on the banks of Mother Ganges.
She is broad, dirty, green-backed. The air around her is preternaturally still, the setting sun transformed to a supernova behind her. There is no question that she rules this place. There is no question that she is old as the world; older than that. I am smitten, struck dumb, a child before her.
It happens that I have come to a halt near the burning ghats—the place where people bring their dying and their dead for cremation. In front of me are bodies, some still moving feebly, but most wrapped in cloth and waiting stiffly, silently, for their turn to enter the eternal flames.
Some say this fire has been burning since the beginning of the world.
Some say five thousand years; some say it is one and the same. It doesn’t matter what you believe—the fire and the custom are ancient. When your flesh burns away in this flame, your emancipated soul flies free—into nirvana—and the cycle of birth and death, of endless samskara, is broken. Such a soul gains enlightenment.
Small wonder, then, that the paving stones that line the Ganges are filled with the sick, the old and the dying. All have come to seek the learning that begins with the burning. All have come to give up the illusion that life ever belonged to them in the first place; that they were ever anything but love given form in which to dance. This is the end of the beginning. This is the first day of school for the newly freed soul.
The Ganges rolls on by, unperturbed, as she has for thousands of years. Body parts that refuse to burn—stubborn bones, bits of teeth—will be cast in, along with countless other nauseating detritus of human and animal waste. It seems barbaric to the Western mind—dirty! We are exhorted. Don’t touch! But the people here don’t just touch her; they bathe in her, baptize in her, wash away their sins with her warm, oily waters. Mother Ganges absorbs and expunges the hurts and wrongs, the evils, pains and worries of the many.
Strange, to imagine that filth can wash away filth. Strange, to believe that ashes can birth a new soul. From the old, the begrimed and the defunct the soul rises daily, renewed, no matter the state of the body it leaves behind. This is the beauty in decay. This is the jewel in the crown of death.
Daily life in Varanasi tumbles on, its chaos and delight, its smells and sounds threading through the rising smoke, ash and incense. Life and death, inextricably bound together, meet here on the banks of the river of time itself. I walk its shallows. I soak in its meaning. I add my own words to its endless story.
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Assistant editor: Jennifer Moore /Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: elephant archives