Zerky in Benares

December 29, 1967
Benares, India

Dear Zerky,

Should you ever come to India, Benares will blow your mind. Yesterday while walking down the street, we passed a man with two heads. It didn’t register immediately, there were too many other weird things grabbing our attention, but by the time I realized what I thought I had seen, and had turned around in amazement, my two-headed phantom had vanished into the crowd. Benares is very disorienting because anything is possible here.
While wandering through the warren of narrow streets today, a funeral procession nearly ran over us. Four men carrying a corpse on a stretcher-like apparatus, draped in pink and purple satin and with bells, rounded a corner suddenly, jogging along to the rhythm of a drummer and to the bells. To the sound of the beat, all five of them were chanting a repetitive three note melodic phrase as this strange procession moved rapidly through the crowded streets full of people paying little attention to it except for us. Noting that it was heading towards the river, it was not without some apprehension that I picked you up and the three of us gave chase to a rapidly disappearing corpse.

Our pursuit soon led us down to the ghats, which are a series of huge concrete steps going down into the Ganges. The ghats are the center of religious activity here in this holiest of Hindu cities, because it is the ambition of many Hindus to be cremated here and to have their ashes turned over to Ganga, the river goddess who is the daughter of Himalaya, the mountain god. Both geographically and in terms of ancestral descent, the Ganges flows downwards from the top. Upon reaching the river, we are met with the following scene:

Burning on the riverbank at the base of a cluster of Hindu temples are several fires being fed from small piles of neatly stacked logs. There is also an unlit fire with a structure of logs piled up in such a way as to leave little doubt as to its purpose. We are about to witness a cremation, and it is with both fear and fascination that we watch the ceremony, unfold. First the bearers lower the stretcher and place it beside the river. Two men remove the body from beneath its satin covering. The body is now wrapped in a plain white cotton shroud and is being garlanded with fresh marigolds. Two of the bearers wade into the Ganges and, to the accompaniment of much prayer and ritual, submerge the body before laying it out on the sand. Except for the bearers, a priest and ourselves, no one appears to be paying attention to what is going on. Children are running back and forth playing games and skillfully manipulating the strings of their brightly colored kites, darting and diving in the sky in joyous abandon. Vendors are hawking their wares to pilgrims. One approaches us and tries to sell us on the idea of taking snapshots at five rupees apiece. Along the ghats, old men are passing the time of day as they must have passed many a day, standing around in small groups, chatting. A few starving dogs are picking their way in and out of the crowd, tails drooping, noses to the ground, looking for something to eat. A few white cows wander about as contentedly as Elsie the Borden Cow. “Let’s call them the Cremation Cows,” I say to JoAnne. One of them ambles over to the corpse and proceeds to eat off all the garlands. Is this part of the ritual, I wonder?

In due time and to the accompaniment of Indian drums and Scottish bagpipes, the still-shrouded body is hoisted atop the pyre and a salve rubbed ceremoniously over its head, face and limbs. Now a brightly colored powder is sprinkled on the corpse, to the accompaniment of more prayers and drums. Additional wood is now placed on top of the body and a priest—naked to the waist, except for a cord around his neck—is bestowing the traditional rituals. Collecting a small bundle of dried reeds in one hand, he places a hot coal in the end of the bundle and gently waves it back and forth over the body, all the while chanting a prayer. Soon the smoking bundle bursts into flame, at which point the priest uses it as a torch to ignite the pyre, which takes a half-hour to become fully involved in flame. Because the body has been bathed in the river before being cremated, we are spared the sight of the shroud quickly burning off.   Waiting for the corpse to be consumed, we begin studying the other fires where various pyres are in various stages of cremation. Look over there, see? That one is nearly burned out. An ancient man—or is he a woman?—bent, toothless and shriveled, is sifting through a pile of hot ashes with a green wooden pole, picking out the last of the smoldering coals and placing them methodically into an earthen jar. They are the remains of someone who has just been cremated, someone whose ashes are soon to be sprinkled upon the Ganges along with the ashes from all the other pyres. Each cremation has its own stone pot and man in attendance, a man with a badge and a green wooden pole. He is collecting the souls of men about to be delivered over unto the river goddess. Look over there. See that man using his pole to break up the remains of a body so it will burn more efficiently? Now he is taking two-pound chunks of smoking carcass on the end of his pole and restacking them over still flaming logs so they will be further reduced to ash.
At Benares, such cremations go on daily; we watch for another half-hour as two more corpses are delivered to the river in processions such as the one we have followed. Both are dipped into the river and then the cycle begins all over again. Or ends, depending on how you look at death.

We have just witnessed a drop in a river of cremations that has been flowing into the Ganges since the beginnings of Hinduism in a past more ancient than there are records. As always, life and death at the ghats goes on as sacred cows wander unmolested through sweet grey smoke. From time to time, a dog makes off with a still-smoking tidbit that appears to be a dog’s due. “So that’s why they call them “pariah dogs,’” JoAnne exclaims.

Here at the Benares ghats, we are but two tourists and a child, watching the living laying the dead to rest. Its business as usual. No bereaved families, no tear-stained wives, no confused daughters, sons nor husbands. As far as I could tell, Zerky, there were no next of kin present that day. No American Way of Death. Death is no mystery at Benares. That fragile old man so painstakingly collecting remains and putting them into earthen jars—surely he must know that he too will soon be in one of those jars; that thought cannot have escaped him. And those children who are more interested in kites than in cremations, will not they grow up with a better understanding of their own mortality? In 1951, the average lifespan in India was twenty-seven years. In a country historically racked by disease and famine, your humbled father finds it comforting to have witnessed the Indian way of death.

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky

Buy Letters to Zerky Hardcover

$10.95 + $5.00 Shipping & Handling = $15.95

Buy Letters to Zerky Paperback

$6.95 + $5.00 Shipping & Handling = $11.95

All Books come autographed. Should you prefer a non-autographed copy, please so advise by sending an email asking that your website purchase not be autographed.