The Sacred Indian Ritual of Cremation

20 Apr

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April 14, 2012

We pulled in to the Varanasi train station around 5:00am, about 15 minutes ahead of schedule (which is incredibly rare for India based on what I’ve heard). It being so early and a relatively large station we had our doubts about the hotel pick-up we’d pre-arranged but our worries quickly faded as a thin, quiet Indian man approached us with a sign that read “Shelagh Haynes”. We worked our way through the crowded station to the outside where 2 tuk tuks were waiting to take us to Monu Family Guest House.

Our ride to Monu was fairly traffic-free in the wee hours of the morning aside from a few bicycles and the odd cow. We put our bags on and followed one of the drivers through the maze of narrow alleyways to the tiny entrance of our hostel. Thankfully we had someone to show us where it was or we definitely would have gotten lost.

The hostel wasn’t full from the previous night so lucky for us we were able to get the keys to our rooms right away, instead of waiting for the regular 1pm check-in time. Pete took the single room that had 1 double bed with shared washroom facilities while Shelagh, J.J. and I decided to share the triple room that had the largest king-sized bed I have ever seen, as well as a ‘chubby single bed’ (ie wider than a single but narrower than a double) with a private bathroom.

We spent the first half of the day washing the dust and sweat from the clothes we’d worn in Delhi and catching up on the sleep we didn’t get on the train. Around 1pm, after the peak hour of heat of the day (44 degrees Celsius) we put on our Aladdin pants and money belts and headed off in search of a bakery for lunch. We found German Bakery and walked up 4 flights of stairs to the indoor dining room. There were fans to cool the room but no A/C, and we sat on cushions on the floor at the only table in the place which was a long communal table. The other customers were foreigners as well and we made nice with a French couple that had ridden their bikes from Belgium to Greece before traveling to SE Asia and Nepal before making their way to Varanasi.

After we’d eaten we explored a few of the local shops selling silk scarves to see what was available but nobody was ready to commit to a purchase so we made our way through the narrow streets amidst the scooters, motorcycles, children, shopkeepers, policemen, wild dogs and cows to end up at the steps leading down to the Ganges River. We walked along the river just taking it all in. There were men in their tighty-whities washing their clothes in the river; men and water buffalo alike bathing in the river; men working to either repair or break down barely-there boats; women hanging brightly coloured washing on clotheslines to dry; groups of men smoking hashish; goats, dogs and cows wandering around aimlessly; groups of children playing pick-up cricket.

We slowly made our way towards the well-known cremation site to observe the sacred ritual (note: out of respect I observed the no photography rule). As we got closer we could see the smoke of the fires rising into the hazy blue sky ahead. Much to my surprise the smell was not choking or sickening but rather similar to that of a summer campfire.

We soon found ourselves at the bottom of a small set of steps being sat on by several men all wearing white, the colour of mourning. An Indian man introduced himself to us and told us that the steps were for the families of those being cremated and directed us up past the steps to a concrete platform which was attached to Hospice Place. There we met a man of about 50 or 60 years old that took it upon himself to educate us about Hospice Place as well as the cremation ritual.

We learned that those dedicated to working for Hospice Place roam the streets in search of elderly people that are without family and therefore have no one to care for them as they prepare to pass on. Once at Hospice Place they spend their days praying for others and are cared for by being fed and given massages. When their time comes it is Hospice Place that ensures that they are given a proper cremation.

In terms of the cremation ritual itself, once a person passes away the body is wrapped in white cloth and placed on a stretcher made of bamboo and lined with kindling. Next the body is covered in brightly coloured fabric, most often red or orange, and carried through the streets and down to the Ganges River by the family.

There, the body is gently splashed and submerged in the holy water of the river which signifies purification, or a final bathing, after which it is set out, still covered in the brightly coloured cloth and on the stretcher, by the river’s edge to dry for 1 hour. In that hour a bed of wood is carefully laid out in log cabin-like formation.

Once an hour has passed the family carries the body over to the bed of wood that has been laid. They remove the brightly coloured cloth, leaving only the white cloth to cover the body, and lift the body from the bamboo stretcher to gently place it on the bed of wood.

The body is sprinkled with sandalwood powder which signifies a last offering of a perfume which for the living is reserved to be worn on special occasions. Following the sandalwood powder is the pouring of milk butter which signifies a last offering of food for the deceased.

The eldest male of the family, having already bathed in the holy water of the Ganges and dressed in all white, brings a small bundle of kindling to the fire of Shiva, a fire which is tended to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and has been burning consistently for many years. The kindling is lit with the fire of Shiva and walked back down to the body which has now been covered by an identical bed of wood as the one it is laid upon. (Fact: The cremation process for a small body requires approximately 200kg of wood while a larger body requires approximately 300kg. Each kg of wood costs 150 rupees as the wood used is specially imported due to its ability to mask the unpleasant scents of burning cloth, hair and flesh.)

After waving the kindling lit by the fire of Shiva over the body a total of 5 times, 5 to signify Earth, Wind, Water, Fire and Spirit, the kindling is placed underneath the bottom bed of wood. The body then burns for 1 hour’s time.

After an hour only 1 bone remains – for women it is the hip bone and for men it is the chest bone. These bones are saved for last step of the cremation process to be thrown into the holy water of the Ganges. But first the eldest male of the family must fill a rounded clay pot with holy water from the river and lightly sprinkle some of the water over the fire after which the clay pot is thrown and broken onto the fire which is believed to break the relationship between the family and the deceased. The final element of the ritual requires the family to leave the cremation site to bathe together in the Ganges.

Once I had seen the full ritual from start to finish I asked the older man that had explained each step to us in detail why the gathering of family was very obviously male-dominated. He told me that it was because crying during the cremation process was prohibited as it was thought to send the spirit off into sadness, leaving it to haunt the family. As women and children tend to be more emotional they often choose not to attend the cremation process so as not to sadden the spirit of the deceased.

Needless to say, this was a very personal, very intense and very emotional cultural ritual to witness first-hand.

We observed the recommendation found within the travel Bible of Lonely Planet and donated a few hundred rupees to Hospice House. The money goes predominantly to pay for a proper cremation for those that pass on while staying at Hospice House that are without family to fund and carry out the ritual on their behalf.

Nothing I can possibly say about the rest of our day can compare to bearing witness to this sacred tradition so I’ll be brief.

Unable to stay more than 1 night at Monu Family Guest House due to lack of room availability we checked out some of the other hostels nearby that came recommended by both and, deciding to forgo Wifi for A/C (it was 44 degrees Celsius after all). We booked in at Mishra Guest House and also booked our transportation back to New Delhi and into Amritsar where we plan to visit the Golden Temple.

I had been feeling under the weather the past couple of days, likely due to a combination of jet lag and drastic change in weather, and so I opted to instead write this blog entry as I feel today’s experience at the cremation site deserved as much detail as I could recall, while the others went off in search of food.

Side note: I’ve written this entry in complete darkness as I am currently experiencing one of India’s regular power outages. 


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