Death here is not morbid—it's a vibrant business. This is where the sacred and the commercial comfortably converge. The city of 2 million hosts more than 50,000 funerals a year, and shopkeepers are more likely to sell sandalwood logs, incense and tinsel garlands—the paraphernalia of death—than savory samosas. It takes about three hours to burn a body, and the cost can be prohibitive, usually starting at $200 for a modest affair. Whole streets are dedicated to the selling of shrouds and the influx of tourists has spawned a new school of opportunists. Papu, a self-appointed guide to the Hindu rituals of death, walks visitors through the ceremony, then earnestly describes the karmic benefits of giving $10 to a widow with no means. What a donor gains from Papu taking a cut is not explained.
"It's good to live in Varanasi," says V.J. Kumari Biswal from the darkened shelter of a photo-processing shop as he watches the third funeral procession of the morning. "Here, you are always reminded of the cycle of living and dying. You can gather wealth, friends, a shop ... " he gestures at the store his father opened in 1908. "But in the end it all comes to this," he says, nodding toward a white shrouded body draped with marigolds.
Just after dawn the old city begins to wake. The jackhammer throb of a thousand electricity generators competes with raucous Hindi music blasting from the stereos they have brought to life. A discordant orchestra of scooter bleats, car horns, rickshaw chimes and temple bells nearly drowns out one of the day's early funeral processions. The cortege turns into the packed alleys surrounding the Golden Temple, where lanes that barely fit two abreast are thronged with devotees, foreheads smeared with vermilion tikka, a blessing from the temple priest.
Finally the mourners, their voices hoarse and cracking, make their way down to Manikarnika Ghat, where bodies are burned on the riverbank, to lay down their burden. The widow is directed to an observation deck above the burning platform. "Women cannot come to the burning," explains Papu. "They cry and wail and shout, and the soul cannot be released to Nirvana if someone is calling him back with tears."
Two other bodies have been burning since dawn. The funeral pyres, once piled more than a meter high, are now nothing but smoldering heaps of ash and fragmented bone. A blackened skull is all that remains of one; on the other a heat-shriveled thigh juts out, still attached to a cracked pelvis bone. Curiously, there is no odor of burnt flesh or hair. The bodies, in preparation for burning, have been dipped in the Ganges. "The holy river purifies all beings," says Papu, spitting betel juice from between blackened teeth. "That is why there is no odor."
A crowded rowboat burdened with a shrouded corpse labors its way out to the middle of the river. Pregnant women, holy men and children, among others, are thought to be clean. Needing no purification by fire, they are simply weighted down and lowered into the river's embrace. Closer to shore, one of the pure bodies has escaped its mid-river moorings and bobs among a group of children who pay it no heed. Varanasi is not for the fainthearted, but for those willing to risk a little discomfort, it offers a raw and intimate glimpse into the Indian way of life.
Back on the banks of the burning ghat, the funeral party prepares to light the pyre. The shroud has been pushed back from the corpse's face so he can look upon Rama, the sun. The eldest son circles the body once and sprinkles it with ghee, or clarified butter. Finally, hands trembling, he sets the dry wood alight, using live coals brought from his household's devotional fire. As the flames engulf the corpse, the adolescent turns away and covers his face with his hands.
Papu is not concerned about voyeuristic tourists. In fact, he worries they may be too timid to approach the burning platform. "Cremation is an education for everyone," he says. "People see the dead bodies and think about the meaning of their own lives. They realize that at the end of a life only the good deeds and the bad deeds remain." As for earthly trappings, they won't make it through the flames. Those you leave behind in Varanasi.