Life’s last act

Prayers, yoga, rituals and mystical stories consume conversation around the ghats and the temples devoted to Shiva, Ganesh, and many other deities lining the city’s narrow congested streets. The worshippers start their hymns in the early hours, marking the start of life in the city. Over the course of the day, the fragrances of incenses and sweet shops set the moods of the streets. The red dots of holy powder on the foreheads of shopkeepers and street hawkers are perpetual reminders of the enduring holiness of the city. 


Varanasi is in the northeastern most edge in the State of Uttar Pradesh. A city sacred to Hindus and Jains and also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with settlements dating back to the 11th century BC. The oldest area of the city is a maze of narrow streets. Chelle and I regularly squeezed past the numerous cows freely roaming the passageways. Our first guesthouse was located near Manikarnika Ghat. There are 87 Ghats in the city which are riverfront steps leading to the banks of the sacred River Ganges. Most of the ghats are for bathing or ceremonies. Manikarnika is also known as the Burning Ghat, a place of sacred cremation. Many Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi brings salvation/nirvana and so they make the trip to the city when they realize that they are close to death. 

Throughout my career I have encountered many who were near life’s end. I have sat at the bedsides of those who were dying and have shrouded the recently deceased. I don’t feel sheltered from the bony hand of death. However, bearing witness to Manikarnika, which runs 24/7, burning hundreds of bodies a day in plain sight, it dawned on me how physically distant most of us are from the departed. Anywhere else death is treated with trepidation. In the West, the dead are typically hidden—taken away—either to be beautified for a funeral or to be cremated, depending on beliefs. Either way, bodies are rarely seen again. Few are as transparent and as raw as the Hindu ritual on the banks of the Ganges River.

The chanting started softly in the distance, a murmur that grew louder and louder. As the group neared us, the rhythmic chants reverberated off the walls of the dark, narrow laneways. Four men carrying a bamboo bier suddenly appeared leading a small group of mourners. The body atop the litter was covered with a shimmering saffron & gold colored silk shroud draped with garlands of flowers an interesting contrast in the low morning light. As quickly as they appeared they were gone. The chanting fading with them. There was something beautiful about the process unfolding before us – the rawness, the simplicity, the completeness. The Bhagavad Gita (Hindu scripture) states that “Worn-out garments are shed by the body: worn-out bodies are shed by the dweller within…

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