The air was filled with smoke, making things almost invisible. And I couldn’t keep my eyes open for long. The smoke was infuriating. I had to move constantly. There were bodies getting burnt all around. First I saw the cremation from a distance, then I approached closer. I wanted a closer look, and there I was standing right in the midst of two burning bodies. I stood there for a minute, saw the corpses melting away. I kept looking. The hands and legs of the deceased were hanging, the head, the eyes, the neck all melting like how a candle burns and melts. The entire body was getting dismembered slowly, totally out of shape. It was melting right in front of me and I felt disgusted.
But I kept on looking
By this time, people were moving out, but I stayed there and kept on looking at this perfectly choreographed dance of an ancient sacred ritual and I couldn’t take my eyes off. Maybe I was starting to get some perspective?
New corpses kept on coming in, wrapped in white fabric, garlands around their neck and chest, forehead covered in white ash and colorful marks (tilak) which signified their sacredness and caste, and carried on a small bed by 4-5 people shouting loudly “ Ram naam satya hai” (Lord Ram is the inevitable truth). This slogan is part of the cremation ceremony and always broadcasted with a loud voice during the transport of the corpse and ends just before it is brought to the cremation spot. The bodies were coming in, and one by one immersed in the ganges for 15- 20 seconds (another sacred procedure to ensure purification of the soul), before they were finally kept on the pyre of woods. Woods were then ignited, slowly catching up the fire as these were thick logs kept on one another forming a big block. Each body was taking 4-5 hours to completely burn itself out, finally turning into ash
Many people see this magnanimous ceremony during day, but the experience is nothing close to what you see in night time. During the night, the noise is less, people sit quietly around and all you can hear is the sound of fire burning through bodies and lot of wood. Ofcourse the fire itself looks beautiful in the night giving a good contrast of light in the dark, as opposed to what it may look in the day. The feeling sinks in heavy at this time and what you feel entirely depends on what kind of person you are
The people doing this job however have no choice in feelings. They are mechanical in nature. They are duty bound and belong to a community called ‘Dom’. The owner managing the entire place and work is popularly called the ‘Dom Raja’. They have many hired priests, who lead the ceremony with their prayers and chantings. Without their presence, the ceremony is treated futile and insignificant. Out of curiosity, I started to look more closely at this workforce and I was startled to see how dedicated and unaffected they looked with what they had to endure. Manikarnika Ghat was practically their habitat. Most of them had spent their entire lifetime doing this work, living with smoke and fire all the time and the beacon was passed onto younger generation.
“humne toh itne log jalaye hain, ab toh kuch pharak nahi padta”, said one of the workers when I asked him how he felt doing this job. I was sitting beside him as we both watched dead bodies get burnt. It was getting darker as time passed and we both decided to add more smoke on the already existing smoke from the sacred flames all around. This one came from the bidi (Indian cigarette) that we both smoked together. At that moment the smoke coming out from the bidi looked quite sacred to us, it gave us the happy high and we continued talking
He said, seeing the lifeless corpses getting burnt and vanishing out of their form is no big deal, It is like drinking tea and as simple as it can get
“Hum toh yeh bachpan se dekhte aa rahe hain”
And at that very moment I realized something has changed inside me. I was normalizing to this whole act. This overwhelming ‘larger than life’ experience was settling and becoming easy to watch. The time was doing its magic. And more I spent time there, more I started feeling comfortable.
On this positive state of mind, I started to move around in search of more insight of this business