Footloosing Frontiers


Episode 2: Death does not us part

My first tryst with death happened, Ma says, when I was four and our pet parrot Mithu just wouldn’t wake up one morning to eat her seeds. She hung her head and sat stiff on her perch. Ma said she had gone to sleep forever. I did not understand ‘forever’. For children, time runs differently. Everything is now. Or never. So I sat in front of her perch and every few hours touched her to see if she would wake up. She grew colder to my touch. After the second day, Ma came back from the hospital and found me lying in bed with a high fever and a worried Mashi fussing around me. I was murmuring Mithu’s name occasionally. This lasted for a few days. By then Mithu had been buried in a flowerpot and Baba had planted a small jasmine bush in it. My doctor Baba believed in a different kind of afterlife.

Every time I hear this story, I think of the fever less as an illness and more as my attempt to build a pathway to reach Mithu. The mild insanity of fever is like a porthole to another place or time. This curiosity about death grew as I got older and lost many more dear ones to its finality. Death intrigued me with its rituals, symbolism, meanings, significance and various myths associated with it. The search for the porthole became explorations of the ‘departure lounges’. And as my travels began both in India and around the world, I looked up cemeteries, graveyards, crematoriums, and towers of silence on maps and visited them. In Bangla, there is a term Shawshan-Bandhu – crematorium-friend. These are people who accompany on the last journey with the dead, and they are bound by special bonds with the family where death has struck. But I could never be a proper and official Shawshan-Bandhu since I am a woman, and women are not encouraged to take this journey among Hindus. In many other cultures and religions too, women are not allowed either to accompany the dead on their last journey or visit the places of the last rites. So, at some places, I had to contend with seeing from these departure lounges from afar. When I could, I would speak to the caretakers of these places to understand not just the spiritual significance of the human loss, but also the industry and enterprise around death and dying. From many such journeys, I am sharing two today, that have affected me deeply and influenced my way of life.

From Nimtala and Keoratala crematoriums in Kolkata to Domohani in Asansol and Kalpalli in Bangalore, I have visited many Hindu crematoriums (mostly with electric chambers) and burning ghats (open-air wooden funeral pyres) in cities across the country. Something about burning bodies to ashes; and the ashes diffusing into the elements of nature – panchbhoot – fascinates me. But no other burning ghathas had the profound impact that the Manikarnikain Banaras (Varanasi) had on me.  I first went to Banaras with my parents when I was ten or eleven and saw the ghat for the first time from the river, as we were cruising on a boat to see the entire river line of the city. Manikarnika struck me as an ancient, eternal, wise and patient woman, letting go of the reins of life. This image has stayed.

Over the years I have gone back to Manikarnika many times. Sitting in a boat in the river all night, I have watched its continuous industry of sending people off on their last journeys on earth. One of the 88 ghats on the sacred river Ganga, the Manikarnika is located in Lahori Tola in the heart of the city of Banaras. Some say when Vishnu cut the body of Sati that Shiv was carrying into 51 parts and strewn it across the land, her ear with a mani– a jewelled earring – fell here, so this place is called Manikarnika. Some others say Shiva came to bathe here and lost a gem from his ear and that’s how the place got its name. The city of Banaras, also known as Kashi, is considered by Hindus as a city of liberation or moksha. The scriptures state if one dies or is cremated here one attains eternal enlightenment and is freed from the cycle of birth and death. Over 200 bodies come to the Manikarnika every day. They say the funeral pyres have been burning there for times beyond our memory. Each of my trips to this city has been laced with the bittersweet realisation of the inevitability of human loss.

Manikarnika Ghat

Manikarnika is a stage for the final performance, with its many burning pyres, the mixed smell of incense, ghee, flowers and bodies, the continuous chant of incantations and the drone of mourning relatives. Watching this unfolding, ceaseless human drama I have witnessed how even in death class and caste remain of utmost significance. From the piles of wood to the hierarchy of the priests implementing the rituals, to the package of the last rites – the quality of every product and service is commensurate with its price. A priest also told me once that every ritual you want to escape also has its price – mulyodhoredeowa (pay the price for it, in Bangla). You just have to pay up and shortcut the ceremony. The dark cloud of the Hindu caste system casts its shadow heavily on death rituals here. While the Brahmins, in charge of the ceremonies and communion with the Gods, are revered as the knowledgeable and in the uppermost echelons of society; the Domsthe community who actually do the work of burning the bodies are considered outcasts and untouchables even today. This ostracisation is magnified manyfold as the last rites proceed, and is taken for granted by all who engage.

But outside of this industry of death and discrimination, far away in that boat, the images of Manikarnika facilitating the last journeys also creates a strange ambience for self-reflection. Seeing the bodies disappear in smoke and ashes, relatives leaving after a point, and the river flowing unconcerned, makes for a deep sense of Shawshan-Bairaggo (in Bangla), a desire for renunciation of this worldly life, or a detachment that comes associated with the burning ghat. It is experienced more as time than a place the temporality of passing seconds creating a hammock for pause. A time to empty oneself without feeling bereft; a time to think of departure without feeling abandoned. Every night I have spent at Manikarnika, I have felt lighter of life’s burdens, more ready to travel beyond.

The Cimitirul Vesel or the Merry Cemetery of the little village of Sapanta, in Maramures County in Romania, though tell a very different story of death. The vibrantly coloured tombstones, with child-like drawings and little poems, have become a place for international tourism. In 1935, a local artist Stan Ioan Patras listened to villagers at the local watering hole sharing stories about a recently deceased person and sculpted the first multi-coloured cross for a tombstone with the story as a poem. Since then this has been the tradition of the village. After he passed away in 1977, his protégé Dumitru Pop-Tincu continues this work.

My friend Menaka Rodriguez and I were on a road trip across Bulgaria and Romania. When we spotted this on our itinerary, we grumbled at yet another church and graveyard on the list. But googling it threw up such a riot of colours with a domination of the Sapanta blue, that we were intrigued. The place was the complete opposite of what one would expect at a sombre and quiet Christian cemetery. It seemed more like a joyous carnival that has frozen in time. Each of the brightly coloured tombstones had pictures from the daily lives of the deceased person, with a poem as an epitaph. Making fun of the dead or revealing their secrets is part of the practice here and the village does not seem to think of this as showing a lack of respect or grace. In fact, they seem to enjoy their dead being discussed this way.

One epitaph reads:

Underneath this heavy cross
Lies my mother in law poor
Had she lived three days more
I’d be here and she would read
You that are passing by
Try not to wake her up
For she comes back home
She’ll bite my head off
But I’ll act in the way
That she will not return
Stay here my dear

There is another that reads:

Here I rest. Stefan is my name.
As long as I lived, I liked to drink.
When my wife left me, I drank because I was sad.
Then I drank more to make me happy.
So, it wasn’t so bad that my wife left me
Because I got to drink with my friends.
I drank a lot, and now, I’m still thirsty.
So you who come to my resting place,
Leave a little wine here.

I wondered how a Christian cemetery could take death so lightly and with such amusement. I found out that this part of the world is also influenced by the Dacian culture, which flourished in Romania in the first and second centuries AD. The Dacians believed in an afterlife and thus death was more like a pause to celebrate the end of one term and a journey into another. This is reflected in the ambience of the Merry Cemetery of Sapanta.

The reason both Manikarnika and the Merry Cemetery have left their marks on me is because both ease our anxiety and fear of death – the great unknown. While Manikarnika does that with its narrative of moksha that makes one experience the lightness of detachment; the Merry Cemetery rejoices in the fulfilling end of this robust mortal life, welcoming the next with enthusiasm. Both are stories made by us to facilitate our journey here on this planet and prepare for our departure from it. In both places, death is thus seen not as a happening that separates us, but as a passage that connects us to the next part of the adventure.

Arundhati Ghosh is a cultural practitioner and lives in Bangalore. She is a poet in Bangla and can be sometimes convinced to write in English.