National Geographic : 1971 Oct
In the days and nights that followed, when I was on the river, I often heard their soft chant drift across the water: "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, Hare Rama...." AN AWARENESS OF DEATH, or rather of the transitiveness of life, pervades Banaras' waterfront. At night the water, the sandbar opposite the city, and the sky merge in darkness. The temples, houses, and great embankments rise like ghosts in the mist. At Panchganga Ghat pale lamps flickered in bamboo baskets on 40-foot bamboo poles -"sky lamps" to guide the souls of the dead (page 460). And on Manikarnika Ghat the funeral pyres sent their reflections dancing across the waters; around them the tenders performed their macabre ballet, stoking, poking with long bamboo poles. One hundred Doms, members of a subcaste who serve as cremation attendants, man the burning ghats night and day. They receive a fee-"from 5 to 100 rupees, depending on the family's wealth," one told me as we stood wreathed in the heavy blue smoke of the fires. Male relatives and friends bring the shrouded bodies on litters, immerse them in the Ganges, and set them on the steps to dry. The bodies are then placed on cordwood pyres, together with sacred offerings-sandal wood, camphor, mango leaves, and ghee, clarified butter, which also fuels the fire. The chief mourner, usually the eldest son, grasps a straw torch and circles the pyre five times, then sets it afire. Finally, with a large pole, he strikes the skull five times, breaking it to free the soul. "We don't burn small children," the Dom explained. "The children are still innocent and do not need the purifying flames. We take the bodies to the middle of the Ganges, tie them to stones, and cast them in." There is little sense of mourning at the burning ghats, for who that is born does not die? Boys bustle by with armloads of cord wood, dogs scratch and quarrel, funeral par ties await their turn. About 30,000 bodies are cremated here each year (upper). I noticed three men, knee deep in the river, sifting ashes and mud in baskets. "They look for gold, rings and such," the Dom said. "It is their concession." A young man with shaven head and white clothing told me, "Yesterday my mother died and was burned. As the eldest son, it fell my duty to perform the rituals. Today I bring milk to pour over the pyre." 466 Flames pierce the nightly gloom of the Banaras funeral ghats, scene of 30,000 cre mations a year. Relatives give red-draped corpses a final dip in the river, then anoint them with ghee-clarified butter. The de ceased's eldest son usually lights the pyre and cudgels the skull to split it, releasing the soul. Later the family returns to scatter bones and ashes in the Ganges, a grave also for the unburned bodies of innocent children. To die in Banaras is a lifetime desire for Hindus, because it means the soul is freed forever from the wheel of life-the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. Eyes fixed heavenward, a Banaras bather floats his silent prayers from the Ganges up to the gods.