An Ancient City for Cremation Deals With the Pandemic

VARANASI—Pyres burn 24 hours on the banks of the river Ganges in Kashi, a city where Indians have been coming to die for thousands of years because they believe death here can liberate their soul.

As the pandemic struck India, Kashi saw fewer corpses reaching its shores, but the ones who came included those dead due to the virus. The arrival of those dead from COVID affected the cultural forms and the business of death. With the pandemic easing, things in Kashi are returning to the ancient ways.

The holiest cremation ground of the Hindus, the thousands of years old “Manikarnika ghat,” stood busy on Feb. 12, with every five minutes a dead body arriving, carried on the family’s shoulders through the narrow lanes on the ghat’s—the bank’s—slope that led straight to the river.

Those carrying the dead repeated a Hindu chant that reinforces the belief in god and the afterlife.

While corpses wrapped in bright clothes and decked with flowers waited for their turn on the pyre, a group of young men stood guard at the sacred bonfire that burns 24 hours and lends fire to every pyre.

Their job is to keep it burning and they remained present there despite the pandemic.

“This is a ‘dhuni’ [sacred fire] lit by Lord Shiv himself 3,500 years ago,” explained Sundar Yadav, 21, a wood merchant who sells all varieties of wood that families can choose from for the cremation.

Rajesh Chaudhary, stands near the dhuni or the sacred fire that lends fire to every pyre at the ancient Manikarnika ghat in Kashi on Feb. 12, 2021. (Venus Upadhayaya/Epoch Times)

Yadav said typically 300-400 dead bodies came to Manikarnika from around India every day for cremation, but this changed during the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, this decreased to 50-100 every day and were mostly from areas from 16 miles around,” said Yadav adding that the overall business was obviously hit because even the accompanying people were fewer in number.

The cultural significance of the holiest cremation ground for the Hindus can be understood from the fact that it’s believed that the day the dead stop coming to Manikarnika, the world will meet a holocaust.

“That sounds logical because the day a holocaust happens, no one will come to Manikarnika,” Ravi Shankar Shukla, 43, a priest and classical musician from Kashi told The Epoch Times at the Assi Ghat, another bank on the river Ganges where cremation rituals are done.

He said Manikarnika is known as “Mahashamshan,” which means the best of all crematoriums since prehistory—where fire and pyres don’t stop burning.

“Manikarnika cremation ground finds its mention in “Kashi mahatmya” [scripture] in the Shiv Puran,” said Shukla. Purana, which in Sanskrit means ancient, is sacred literature and has been in existence for at least 2,500 years.

“Kashi has seen many disasters and epidemics. Look at how crowded the city is even today,” said Shukla, who noted in comparison how many people have died of COVID in Mumbai and Delhi. 12 generations of Shukla’s family have served as priests performing rituals on the banks of the Ganges in Kashi.

Descendants still come looking for Shukla since his forefathers had served them as priests and the family holds their ancestral records—some Brahmin families like Shukla’s in Kashi own genealogy records of people from around India for centuries. However, there are no genealogy records that document death from COVID.

“When people come to us to perform rituals, they only tell us the name and the date of the death. We don’t note the cause of the death in our records. It can be hurtful to divulge the cause of death,” said Shukla.

Sundar Yadav at the wood market behind the ancient Manikarnika cremation ground at the bank of the river Ganges in Kashi on Feb. 12, 2021. (Venus Upadhayaya/Epoch Times)

Rituals and Culture

Death means rituals among Hindus, and on the bank of Ganges the priests sit performing rituals that are done during or after the cremation and differ according to the type of death.

There are rituals for those who die natural deaths, additional ones for those who die in accidents, alterations for married and unmarried women, and different rituals for dead children. The pandemic posed an obvious question: How did the ancient city of cremations culturally deal with death due to the coronavirus?

“The pind dan is done on the first day of the death. It represents the dead merging with the five elements. After ten days the ganth dan is done on the pipal tree [sacred fig or the bodhi tree],” Rakesh Tiwari, 52, a priest at the Assi Chat said while explaining the death rituals done for the soul’s liberation and that finish by the thirteenth day.

“When my neighbor died due to coronavirus, his body from the hospital was taken straight in a sealed coffin to the electric crematorium. The authorities put a lock on the door to quarantine the family for 14 days. Where then is an opportunity to do the rituals?” said Tiwari, his face down as if going through his scriptural knowledge about what this would mean for the departed soul.

“They can only chant Ram nam satya hai [a chant commonly uttered when carrying a dead body],” he said explaining that they have no other option when in quarantine.

Half a mile from where Tiwari sat, Aarti Sharma, 56 sat outside her small grocery shop at the entrance lane to the Assi Ghat. Her husband, a bank employee passed away from coronavirus on Sept. 4 and Sharma is still to come to terms with it.

After death, the dead are carried on the shoulders of sons and near relatives but due to the pandemic, Sharma’s two sons found it difficult to carry her 187 pounds (85 kilograms) husband on their shoulders, and no one would come near.

“I almost fainted in the PPE suit in the ambulance. I was in grief, and everything felt suffocating. I have lent a shoulder to so many dead from the relatives and neighborhood but couldn’t believe what was happening to us,” said Arti’s son Vikas Sharma.

Two bold neighbors eventually lent a hand, and the four managed with effort to carry Sharma’s husband to the electric crematorium, which requires minimal expense. In normal times it is not preferred by most, as emotional families want to give their loved one the best ritualistic send-off.

“God should never show such a time even to enemies. It felt like our own people were not our own,” said Sharma, whose second son could perform the rest of the rituals as he lived in another home and had tested negative.

Rakesh Tiwari, a priest sits at the Assi Ghat bank of the Ganges waiting for pilgrims at the ancient city of Kashi on Feb. 12, 2021. (Venus Upadhayaya/Epoch Times)

What to Do For COVID Dead?

Just a mile away from Tiwari and Shukla, smoke emerged from the electric crematorium at the Harish Chandra ghat, where generally people with mutilated deaths are cremated and where coronavirus casualties are also cremated.

Mohit Mehrotra, the caretaker of the government-run crematorium is dressed in a white blazer, a stark contrast to traditionally dressed priests on the banks.

He sat in a large hall on a table with two attendants. Behind him, large windows open to the Ganges while on his right stand two electric crematorium chambers, the furnaces of which can be seen from the boats plying with pilgrims on the Ganges.

Outside the gate, a dead body lay on the ground, as according to tradition it should lie on the earth.  Many relations stood mourning by the wall.

“During the time of the pandemic, the administration ordered us to take only the COVID bodies. From July last year, we were every day getting over 7-8 bodies. Now it has almost become nil,” said Mehrotra adding that over 74 percent of the dead came from the city and the rest from around the state but no COVID body came into Kashi from other parts of India.

The youngest that Mehrotra’s team cremated was 14 years and the oldest was 70 years.

“The ashes of the COVID patients were also immersed into the Ganges,” said Mehrotra when asked what happened with the ashes of dead cremated at the electric crematorium.

“When the body is cremated, it becomes one with the five elements. The ashes are immersed in the Ganges and it merges with the soil. This means the body came from the soil and went back to the soil,” explained Shukla.

A Brahmin priest gets ready at twilight for performing rituals at the Assi Ghat at Kashi on Feb. 12, 2021. (Venus Upadhayaya/Epoch Times)

Brahmin’s Reminiscence

Tiwari said a priest or a Brahmin’s household runs by the donations given by those coming for rituals and the banks remained closed to the dead and the pilgrims for almost a year.

“A Brahmin does Shrad [death rituals], with Shradha [devotion] and not with material interests in mind. Now people think how much will I earn, that’s why pandemics like these are happening,” said Tiwari adding that his income was almost nil during the lockdown.

As Tiwari sat on a wooden bench under a bamboo umbrella, a woman sat on the side performing a daily ritual while another sat on the ground reading the epic, “Ramayana.”

“They have taken a “sankalap” [vow]. A sankalap is taken for which a ritual is done,” said Tiwari. He repeated a few Sanskrit words spoken in sankalap prayers ‘Kali yugey Kali prathama charney’ [in the first phase of the age of darkness, death and destruction will start].”

“Isn’t it happening today? People are dying due to such novel and different causes,” said Tiwari.

Shukla said that the dharmic (religious) traditions in India believe that death is the biggest truth of life, but no one likes it.

“It’s a fact. What people do to live and what people do to die! That you find in Kashi,” he said adding that all traditions including the Hindu calendar were designed keeping in mind the concept of the continuity of life after death. After the lockdown was lifted, these rituals of life and death have started to come back to the banks of Kashi.

A pyre burns on the Harish Chandra ghat (bank) of the Ganges in the ancient city of Kashi on Feb. 18, 2021, while mourners watch. (Venus Upadhayaya/Epoch Times)

 

 

A pyre burns while a few others get ready on the Harish Chandra ghat (bank) of the Ganges in the ancient city of Kashi on Feb. 18, 2021. (Venus Upadhayaya/Epoch Times)
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