A gorge strewn with grottos where holy ascetics have smoked hash and meditated since time immemorial opens onto a temple complex where an old man lies in state, face painted, awaiting his turn. His cold lifeless hands remind me of touching my dead grandfather’s at his wake.
His sons hoist him up and walk him around the ghat three times. They place him back down gently, reverently, on stacked kindling; each mourner approaches and takes his or her time saying goodbye. There is no rush. The eldest son places a flaming fagot in his progenitor’s mouth. Other kin toss sticks, bow, and retreat. His wife wails uncontrollably as the pyre ignites. Agonies of her grieving penetrate my spine.
The professional fire-tender lays large logs atop the body, then heaps dried rice stalks and sloshes purified butter everywhere to burn him richly not fast. The dead man is transformed into a smoking mound. The crowd disperses as the fire crackles, spreading nicely. The workman moves down the Ganges tributary to another ghat to stir another pile of smoldering coals. A skull and spine chunk emerge ghastly and horrible, but not. White ash plumes up and settles upon me like snow. I don’t wipe it off.
Nearby the burning platforms is a shrine depicting couplings, threesomes, orgies, bestiality–all manner of creative sexuality. It seems at first blush disrespectful, or at the very least ironic: porn in a funeral yard. But if you think about it, the assembly gathered to pay their respects was exactly a tribute to the departed’s penis. The ritual I just witnessed did direct honor to physical love; the presence of the man’s children was proof that he has defeated mortality. He has multiplied, and his progeny have holy lingams and yoni too, and possess the power of procreation like their father before them; his greatest bequeathal. Indeed, they have already put this blessed ability to good use, considering the flock of young people present. And so the cycle continues.
Phallic temples housing phalli. Sadhus posing picturesquely more for photo-ops than out of any true devotion, to my eyes. Anointing tourists with unasked-for forehead dye then demanding baksheesh for the service somehow doesn’t seem to me quite in keeping with the vows. Granted, of which I know little. But it seems to me I could maybe sit all day in a sacred ground with no possessions but a chillum and an orange robe forsaking temptations, too. These guys don’t really appear to be all that enlightened. Perhaps extreme denial isn’t meant to be my path. On the other hand. Maybe their constant exposure to the specter of death–all day watching body after body vaporize into nothingness–causes them to gain some immunity to its nefarious specter, and thus, these dudes have achieved a kind of transcendence. I’d ask one if I had a spare 200 rupee bill.
The person by whom I’m more intrigued is the cremator. Does he recognize that his own body is simply a compilation of fats and acids which will eventually burn to bits of charcoal in the course of three to three-and-a-half hours? What is his sense of self, so inured must he be to the hard elemental truth of what it means to secularly ‘exist’ one minute then be immolated into the atmosphere the next? Not having devoted himself to spiritual reflection, but rather to a pragmatic sanitation task, is he nevertheless moved by a widow’s tears?
I bet the pyre-tender has children. I bet he’s got many children, and fantasizes often about what his own send-off will be like, and goes home to his wife at the end of what would be for most a psychologically castrating day, and makes love to her dearly, tenderly, fiercely–for she allows him to unleash his God within, manifest his immortal everyman, become the Śiva inside.