The Brahmin of the Burning Ghats

Lost in the fiery back alleys of Varanasi, a wanderer stumbles into an unforgettable encounter.

Published August 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The last breeze of the day was stirring the Ganges, rippling the steepled reflections of the temples in its torpid waters, wobbling the stately images of the peepul trees. Since morning, the river had teemed with bathers performing ablutions on the landings, or ghats; now, with the sun expiring, sending molten feelers out into a mackerel sky, bathers were few, and the ghats were reacquiring a serene, timeless air.

Life in Varanasi, the holiest city of Hinduism, and one of the oldest living cities on Earth, centered around the ghats. Each ghat was distinct: Dashashwamedha Ghat was lined with crooked umbrellas, under which usually sat facial masseurs and officious priests; Bhonsale Ghat had its sandstone tenements and terraced hostels; Scindia Ghat was marked by the leaning and half-submerged Temple of Shiva. As the breeze died, the bluing dusk subsumed them all.

Having just alighted from a skiff tour, I stood regaining my land legs in the glow of lanterns at Dashashwamedha Ghat, under a giant, many-armed depiction of Lord Shiva painted on a water tank. From the skiff I had caught a glimpse of the Mosque of Alamgir, high above the river. The moon was out; the Mosque of Alamgir would afford me a sweeping view of Varanasi in the moonlight, so I decided to hike there, walking from ghat to ghat along the bank until I reached a point from where I could make an ascent to it via the narrow lanes of the riverside Old City.

I set out. Away from the lanterns my progress slowed. I stumbled half-blind in the shadows; I moved cautiously around the corners of temples, coming now upon a recumbent cow, now upon a column bathed in moonbeams. When, hoping to make better time, I stepped away from the river into the Old City, I was met by heat and a fetor of urine and jasmine petals and buffalo dung; the Old City was a maze of yard-wide alleys choked with surging throngs of animals and people. Stymied by the labyrinth, unable to breathe, with sweat drenching my shirt, I retraced my steps and resolved to keep to the bank until I could make a direct climb to my destination.

A short distance on, the air turned acrid. I made my way around another corner, jumped across a minor divide between ghats, and found myself looking onto great fires flaring behind a railing. Above the fires rose an edifice resembling a Gothic castle, soot-blackened and many-storied, culminating in a high tower topped with a handless clock. Men enrobed in white lingering by the railing turned and glared at me, as though I had stumbled into a private affair. I looked back -- there was no other path save the one by which I had arrived, and the way ahead was blocked by the fires.

A hand grabbed my wrist. "De dead -- de dead is boorning in dere. You want to see de dead?"

A runtish youth with a soot-blackened face and jaundiced eyes started pulling me toward the fires. "Come see de dead. I am working here boorning de dead."

I yanked my arm loose. "What is this place?"

"De Boorning Ghats!"

The Burning Ghats of Jalasi, the largest, and most sacred, crematorium of India! I had read about them in my guidebook, but I wanted to avoid them -- it seemed obscene to tour the grief of strangers, and I couldn't help fearing the sight of corpses, of what fire might do to flesh.

The runt grabbed my arm again. "For 50 rupees I show you de bodies and de fires. Dat is a lady boorning in fire. See?"

Looking away, I pulled free of him, and, not wanting to retrace my steps, headed up into a dark airless lane, in what I hoped to be the direction of the mosque. Lurching from wall to wall in the black, feeling my way ahead with my arms outstretched, gasping for breath, I found a staircase and mounted it. The staircase took me up to a landing. There I was confronted by a face half-covered in a checkered silk gamcha, or scarf.

"You are lost?"

"Please, tell me how to get out of here."

"Come this way."

I followed the stranger up another staircase, this one leading up through blackened halls. We climbed more stairs and emerged onto a balcony flooded with moonlight and scattered with supine figures in white shrouds. Directly above us, wreathed in smoke, loomed the tower with the handless clock.

The man halted and undid his gamcha, revealing a majestic and angular face. Around us in a concave array stood soot-covered temples that were once the color of bone; with their glassless gaping windows and jutting, cheek-like fagades, they called to mind an assembly of giant skulls. Below, on a square of charred earth and ash, 10 or 12 pyres, each 10 feet across and 4 feet high, flamed and belched smoke and sparks, the bodies burning therein, lodged between logs, hardly recognizable as such. The pyres were stoked by veiled laborers whose eyes reflected the fire, whose sweat scintillated in the fierce light. Beyond the pyres stretched the void of the Ganges, an infinity of black glass over which the moon waxed and mists gathered. It was a humbling sight.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"My name is Kasi Baba," he answered in poised English. "I am a Brahmin of the Burning Ghats."

Behind him a withered arm emerged from the folds of a white shroud. It belonged to an old woman, who sat up and beckoned to Kasi Baba. She was almost bald. Her shroud slipped down to reveal a bony sternum with no breast flesh. She did not try to hide this. She rasped out a few words and slumped back to the floor. He brought her a ladle of water and placed a plate of bhat, or cooked rice, by her head.

He adjusted his gamcha and turned back to me. "You are in the House of the Dying. I am the caretaker here. These people have come to Varanasi to die and be liberated from the cycle of birth and death and rebirth -- what we call samsara. To be cremated here means everlasting death, it means peace for tired souls, it means moksha -- enlightenment. These are the largest burning ghats of India. We cremate a hundred bodies a day here, and sometimes more. The fires never stop. They have not stopped for 3,000 years."

Tiny bats flitted about our heads. Above, from the cornice surmounting the walls, hung bats a foot long. The fires sent waves of heat and smoke our way, and sweat poured down the sides of my face. The humidity was insufferable, and I became dizzy; I had to grasp the side of the balcony to keep from falling over.

Kasi Baba pointed to another soot-darkened building. "That hostel is for those dying ill, with family. And that one farther on is for the sick who are dying alone. The people in my care are all dying healthy, they are just old."

A pop-hiss resounded from one of the pyres -- the skull of a dead man exploding. The brains boil in the fire and the heads blow up.

Kasi Baba looked toward the men stoking the fires. "Those are the Dom. The Dom are Untouchables who work the fires all their lives. They live with the eternal fire of Shiva in the temple there" -- he gestured to a glowing chamber at the inner end of the concave complex. "The Fire of Shiva liberates the elements of our body."

Clouds drifted over the moon. There was a creak of oars. The cries of boatmen rang out over the river, boatmen making the last run of the day, bringing the pilgrims back from the ghats on the far bank. But there was a rising chant from the square below. Four men were bearing a stretcher with a body enshrouded in white, singing "Ram nam sach hai! Ram nam sach hai!" -- The name of God is truth! -- making their way between the pyres and passing down the steps to the banks. There they lowered the stretcher through the mist into the water, then raised it, shouldered it and started back, resuming their chant: "Ram nam sach hai! Ram nam sach hai!"

Another skull exploded. A pyre roared in a fulsome, consuming blaze. Behind us one of the moribund let out a shrill cry.

"The relatives take the body for a last dip in the Ganges," Kasi Baba said, motioning toward the procession now winding its way up the bank. "The body must be cleansed with Ganges water before the burning, you see. Then we clip the nails and trim the hair to ready it for the fire."

Five men carried another body to a dormant pyre stacked with wood, and placed it on top. From the Temple of Shiva a Dom appeared with a lit torch. He circled the pyre, touching fire to wood. Slowly the flames caught and came to life.

"That body must now burn for three hours."

Around the pyre gathered relatives of the cremated. They said nothing, there was no weeping. The soul of their beloved one was about to attain moksha; the cremation ceremony, though not a cause for joy, in fact marked the advent of peace, and was not an occasion for grief.

"What happens to the ashes of the dead?" I asked.

"In the morning the Dom shovel them into the river, and so deliver the dead to Ganga Ma (Mother Ganges). The hips of women and the rib cages of men do not burn, so they are taken out by boat into the middle of the river and dropped in."

India has almost a billion people, and most are Hindus. How could the Jalasi Ghats meet the demand for cremation?

"There are criteria for being cremated here. The person must be Hindu. He must not be a leper, a holy man or an infant. And of course --" here he adjusted his gamcha -- "he must have money for the wood. Sandalwood is the fuel of choice."

"How much does it cost?"

"Two hundred kilos of sandalwood, enough to burn a body for three hours, costs 19,000 rupees (almost $500). This is much money for us. Many, such as the dying here in my hostel, have saved all their lives for their cremation wood. Of course the poor cannot pay this, so they, shall we say, go for the discount alternative."

"Which is?"

"The body stone. For 200 rupees the Dom will tie a stone to your body, row you out to mid-river and dump you in." The skiffs moored by the ashes were used for this, he said. "The poor have one other option. To rely on charity. From people like you, for example."

We looked into each other's eyes. The point of this long, articulate explanation became clear to me. Kasi Baba addressed one of the moribund, brought him a shard of chapati and returned.

"So, will you please buy a load of wood for a poor man? I will accept your generosity on behalf of the poor. For a mere 19,000 rupees you can bring a beggar to moksha." He extended his palm.

The pyres roared, the bats fluttered, the dying groaned at our sides. I examined Kasi Baba. By his fastidious manner, his regal bearing and his knowledge of the Burning Ghats' ceremonies, I judged him to be a Brahmin employed, as he said, as caretaker of the hostel. But his extended palm, his request for a large sum of money and his pitchman's finish suggested that he was not above using his pyreside position for personal gain; no doubt he would pocket every rupee I gave him.

If mulcting tourists didn't accord with the gravity of his duties, it was, in a way, understandable. India is an ancient country used to colonialists and marauders, visitors and curiosity-seekers. Varanasi has drawn foreign travelers since the Buddha's time; its inhabitants long ago discerned that there was money to be made from them. Still, Kasi Baba's ruse indicated more than material want. It spoke to my castelessness -- to my exclusion as a non-Hindu from the universe constructed for him by his faith, to my inferior status, in his eyes. Why should a Brahmin not make a few rupees from a casteless one wandering into his domain?

Despite our different faiths, one thing, however, united us: Some day, by one means or another, the elements of the both of us, Hindu and non-Hindu alike, would be liberated, whether in the fires of the Burning Ghats or elsewhere, and our sufferings and joys, our conceits and fears and petty concerns would become as mists. If his overture affronted the solemnity of the Burning Ghats, it would be an even greater affront for me to give him nothing in return for his edifying discourse. I handed him 100 rupees -- roughly twice the usual guide fee. He examined the bills.

"But this will not buy even one kilo of wood ... Perhaps you will go for the purchase of a body stone for a mere hundred rupees more?"

"This will have to do. Thank you very much for the talk. You're a knowledgeable guide."

Kasi Baba sighed and nodded, and slipped the rupees into the pocket of his robe. He walked me to the stairs, and we descended, then followed the alley back to the bank. I thanked him and left him adjusting his gamcha, the great handless clock tower rising high above him, flickering with light from the pyres.

As I walked around the edge of the square I gave up the idea of walking to the Mosque of Alamgir -- in the dark, without someone to show me the way, I would never reach it. I headed back to Dashashwamedha Ghat.

Eventually I reached Dashashwamedha Ghat. There, there was no hint of pyres or death. Above the lantern-lit umbrellas and skiffs, where soft drink stands stood in the blaze of dangling bare bulbs and Coca-Cola adverts covered the sides of freezers, I turned up the road to catch a rickshaw to my hotel. Over the Ganges spread a blackness, a blackness studded by fireflies pulsing and waning on their lonely peregrinations throughout the night.

By Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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