Party down by the daily public funerals in Varanasi
22.11.2010 - 23.11.2010 29 °C
Is that a hand? Ah no it's a foot, a leg in fact, kind of. That's a bone sticking out of the knee, isn't it.
From our hotel, looking for food, we'd walked about 200 metres up the river before encountering a matrix of wood by the side. A man, his hair only gray at the edges, lay on top. A few people milled around. A younger man, let's guess his son, lifted his head for a photograph together. He covered the head and another arrived with smoking straw, slid it under the base and the lower half became well alight.
We'd been told to expect lots of hassle in Varanasi, hawks and fake priests, pickpockets. Not here. We settled unmolested on a bench opposite, the atmosphere muted. A couple of assistants poured on some fuel - I like to imagine they're called 'pyre starters' - and it was a proper bonfire. Another stretcher arrived just behind, draped in shiny yellow - taken for a dip in the Ganges then waiting it's turn.
Gray steam clouded upwards from the body into the dusk. If there's a soul it must be made of water. We contemplated our own mortality for a moment, then went for chocolate cake.
Returning from 'Lotus lounge', two other pyres were crackling alongside the first, now down to it's last layer on a circular stone in the middle of the ghat. That's when we saw this half-cooked leg, being poked back into place like a mischievous goat by a teenager with a stick.
Dignified it was not, but perhaps this is a healthier relationship to death. Burnt with simple wood by a river, no coffin, no church organ. The body looks like any other animal you might put on a fire - as indeed it is. The smell, not unpleasant so long as you don't overthink it, of burning fat.
Whether this is what you want for your own body is beside the point. Once you're gone, it's just a bag of bones. While you're here it's just a bag of bones - and no less beautiful, spectacular and full of possibility for it.