Ranjesh, our modestly dressed, aged and knowledgeable guide, leads us down a wide and dusty corridor. The day has been jam packed with visits to shiny gold and silver clad temples surrounded by bodies of water, massacre sites, and other fascinating places. But this last destination is a mystery to us. Ranjesh has dropped hints throughout the day about his secret finale, teasing us with the prospect that awaits, yet refusing to divulge when questioned.
“Okay, Mr Ranjesh, where are you taking us? The suspense is killing me.” my Austrian companion, Veronica, jokes curiously.
“Please, please, Madam, be very patient, you will see soon.” Ranjesh replies sharply in a thick north Indian accent. “Be very patient! Only a few more minutes, Madam.” I hear him whisper in broken English, as I catch him smiling to himself.
We follow him dutifully, like young children on a school trip, curious about every twist and turn. On either side of us are unfinished, cement block buildings that seem to protect us from the chaos of the city beyond their walls. They are certainly more recently built than the countless other ancient and historic sites we have seen on our journey through northern India. Only a few minutes before, we had walked through a very old part of the city. The narrow streets were dotted with heavy, carved doors set in chunky door frames. But where we are now is much more “modern”.
The path is unpaved, dusty and uneven. It is littered with articles of rubbish and the air is tainted with the faint aroma of dirt and sewage. Sights and smells that are now more familiar to me, from many other places we have visited in India. I am so consumed by the surroundings and the curiosity about our destination, that I lose concentration momentarily. One of my tattered walking boots clips against a rocky outcrop and I stumble. I instinctively grab hold of something to stabilise myself. Veronica’s husband, Carl, is almost dragged down with me in the process. Luckily he has better footing than me and rescues the situation.
I chuckle to myself, and blurt out “What an idiot! I’m so sorry Carl.” I smile, a little embarrassed.
He smiles in return and says, stating the obvious, “Clumsy, hey?” and I nod.
For a moment I realised that we both might have ended up in the shallow ditch running alongside us. I cringed as I glanced at its contents; waste water most likely mixed with raw sewage, plastic wrappers and bottles, and who knows what else.
As he had not witnessed the momentary event, Ranjesh pleads, only minutes too late, “Please, please, road is dangerous, take care to walk.” I smile sheepishly at Carl.
The warm afternoon sun is lowering on the horizon, casting a hazy light over the polluted skyline. As we turn a corner we are almost swallowed by a cloud of thin, wavering smoke.
Ranjesh stops us abruptly and says, “Kind Sir and Madams, this place is our last visit today. I could not tell you what it will be, as I did not want to alarm you or make you fear. When we enter, you can decide to stay or wait outside. But I promise you, not many Westerners will see what you see here. And please talk quietly.”
The four of us exchange interested glances.
“Ready?” Ranjesh prompts. We all nod and follow his lead.
As we make our way through the smokiness, my vision becomes increasingly impaired. We approach an uneven, awkwardly laid brick doorway and thick bursts of pungent smoke billow our way. We step through cautiously, one by one. As we broach the foggy air, I start choking spontaneously from the smoke irritating the back of my throat. It’s weirdly quiet where we are, other than occasional coughs and splutters from the group. I catch myself holding my breath – perhaps my lungs are not able to cope with more smoke. Or maybe I am starving myself of what little oxygen there is, in anticipation, in slight apprehension of what may unfold. Suddenly a breeze frolics through the grey mist and ghostly figures languidly emerge, illuminated by flickers of yellow and orange. My eyes are now burning from the fumes and whelming up with tears from discomfort. I strain my irritated eyes, grasping for clear vision, and they dart around in fluster and confusion. In one swift gust, the smoky fog clears before us and fiery flames of multiple funeral pyres erupt into sight.
We are standing in the shadows of the Hindu Cremation Ground, an open air crematorium in Vijay Chowk, Amritsar. In a respectful, lowered voice, Ranjesh explains to us that this is our opportunity to stay on the tour with him or wait outside. None of us appear to falter. Inquisitiveness has captured our attention. From a surreptitious distance, we silently observe the activities, absorbing the mystifying ambience. Everything is surreal, kind of ghostly.
Clusters of mourners gather together, all respectfully dressed in humble attire. Some cry, some chant, others sing hymns and recite prayers. Many circle the flame engulfed pyres in ritual, while others perch on uncomfortable looking concrete benches under a covered walkway. Exactly eleven cremations are underway. Each one at a slightly different point in its process to the next. They all, however, seem to merge in to one, serving one shared objective. In the Hindu religion, it is believed that the burning of the physical body will aid to liberate the soul and oust old, negative energies.
“The last funeral rites for dead Hindus is called antyesti, the last sacrifice. We only cremate adults; children are traditionally buried. The body of the deceased will be burnt so as to be returned to the five natural elements of air, fire, water, earth and the universe. We want the soul to be released from the material world.”
Ranjesh has frequently exceeded our expectations with his knowledge, over the course of the day. I find myself lost in his words, distracted. I catch myself gasping in awe at the scene ahead of me. I listen to the sounds around me; crackling wood, people singing, shoe soles shuffling on the concrete. For a moment, I feel slightly disorientated, confused about where I am.
“How did I get here?” I think to myself.
I can feel someone’s gaze upon me and then suddenly a hand is resting on my shoulder, which makes me jump. I turn to see my travel companion, Rosie, looking at me.
“Are you okay?” she mutters out of concern.
I smile wryly and say, “Yes, I’m fine, thanks.”
It was only a few months before when I had taken a flight to my birth home, Zambia, as my uncle had passed away. I feel sad, remembering that my aunt, my mother’s sister, had lost her companion of 45 years; my two cousins had lost their father. I feel empathy for the people I can see before me, knowing that it is a stark reality of life, an inevitable fate, to eventually lose a loved one, or to be one of the lost ones. Mixed feelings; sadness and curiosity, rising and falling like the swirling smoke see before me.
Almost as if he had read my mind, Ranjesh explains, “As humans, we experience loss for those we care for, but in the Hindu religion, death is not seen as negative. These people you see around the fires have come to celebrate the life of the departed. They encourage the soul to start its journey to meet its destiny, to passage to the land of the ancestors.”
The words were somewhat comforting, a perspective I had not really thought of.
He continues his informative speech. ”It is the wish of every Hindu to have antyesti performed on the banks of the sacred river. This is performed in holy places like Varanasi and Haridwar. However, this is not always affordable for every family, so the funeral rites are performed in a crematorium like this one and the ashes are consecrated to the river.”
I survey what is before me, cast my gaze around the grounds of this eerie place, taking in every little detail. The grounds are set in the form of a pavilion. Inter-connected outer buildings border two open air courtyards, split by a covered walkway. Polished, corrugated metal roofs are contrasted by brightly painted yellow and terracotta walls. I see artistic depictions of three Hindu deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, shrouded in garlands of marigolds. The portraits haphazardly decorate the otherwise bare, yet brightly coloured walls. We are surrounded by cold and dusty concrete floors interspersed with large, raised concrete slabs which serve as the pyre beds. I do a quick count and tally no less than eighteen of those slabs, lined in multiple rows in odd numbers. Each are separated from the others by patterned brick paving stones.
On the far side of the closest courtyard to where we stand, three dug out pits are set in to the concrete. They are slightly larger than the raised slabs.
“Can you see those pits over there?” Ranjesh asks the group.
He continues, without waiting for an answer, “When people die, if the family is of higher caste or if they have more money to spend on the cremation, they can use the pits. Each family member can take it in turn to spread ghee on the body from a safe distance using that metal piping.”
In one of the pits, piled high with burning materials, a body awaits its fate. I now assume that the body is that of a deceased member of a wealthier family, or perhaps one of higher caste, as Ranjesh described. An older woman works a rusty, archaic-looking metal contraption, dousing the body with molten ghee (melted clarified butter, made from the milk of a buffalo or cow). The ghee is kept warm in a large metal bowl on a small fire. She uses a large metal cup with a long handle to scoop the liquid into the hub of the contraption. The ghee then flows along a movable turret, no less than two meters long, controlled by a much shorter handle. We watch as others from the funeral party repeat the process before a flame is lit.
Not more than a few meters away from the activity at the sunken pit, I see movement in and around the shadows. I notice a few young Indian men, skin and clothing tainted patchy grey with remnants of ash. They work in obscurity; as if in secret, hidden from other main goings on. They agilely manoeuvre sturdy wheelbarrows weighed down with pyre materials; wood and bagasse (the shredded waste remaining after sugarcane is processed, commonly used as biofuel). They are stacked strategically, next to beds and pits in preparation for the next funeral at that location. All the burning materials are stored on one side of the courtyard, all under cover, protected from the rain and damp. The wood is pre-cut and weighed, and placed alongside soft-looking bundles of bagasse.
“The families pay for the wood depending on weight and what kind it is. The strong scented sandalwood is most costly…” Our guide explains.
Suddenly, he cuts his words short. Four men had only just managed to hoist a bamboo stretcher upon their shoulders. They usher a corpse bound in white cloth and adorned with angelic flowers, only a few meters away from where we stand. Ranjesh lowers his head and rests his chin on his chest, as a sign of respect, and we follow suit. The men appear to be struggling with their load, but luckily the prepared pyre is nearby. The nearest group of friends and family members move apart, making way for the bearers. And as sudden as they appeared, they are swallowed in the crowd.
The ritual is underway on another bed nearby. The body has been covered in more wood, bagasse and ghee. The eulogy and ceremony has been conducted by the lead mourner. A cloth-wrapped stick dipped in ghee carries a naked flame and the pyre is ignited. The young flames are fuelled, and burn bright; smoke streams curl and rise. The mourners circle the burning body, chanting a hymn.
“They are chanting a hymn of Rigveda, from the Vedas, ancient Hindu scriptures.” Ranjesh says. He offers us a rough translation and we listen intently.
“Burn him not up, nor quite consume him, Agni: let not his body or his skin be scattered.
O Jatavedas, when thou hast matured him, then send him on his way unto the Fathers.
When thou hast made him ready, Jatavedas, then do thou give him over to the Fathers.
When he attains unto the life that waits him, he shall become the Deities’ controller.
The Sun receive thine eye, the Wind thy spirit; go, as thy merit is, to earth or heaven.
Go, if it be thy lot, unto the waters; go, make thine home in plants with all thy members.
Thy portion is the goat: with heat consume him: let thy fierce flame, thy glowing splendour, burn him
With thine auspicious forms, O Jatavedas, bear this man to the region of the pious.”
(Reference: Rigveda, Chapter 10 Book 6 http://www.ancientvedas.com/chapter/10/book/16/)
I notice a few other beds where the crowds have long dissipated. The once bold flames have now subdued; thicker logs pulse and glow red hot; twirls of smoke flow and piles of ash form. On one of the beds, I can just make out a charred, skin-bare skull and a thick femur bone protruding from under the heavier burning logs. Over a course of many hours, most likely overnight, the wood will burn through and most of the bones will turn to ash.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” I whisper to myself, a phrase often stated in Christian funeral services.
Soon the families will return to sift through unburnt wood and remaining shards of bone. They will collect the cold ash of their departed relative.
“We Hindu’s refer to our most holy of rivers, as Ganga Mai. In the west, she is called mother Ganges. The final remains of the deceased will be carried to her shores or another sacred river like the Yamuna. The ashes will be consecrated to the waters of river. We believe that this will help the soul achieve liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, to achieve what is called moksha.”
The sun is now setting, much lower on the skyline than when we arrived in this mysterious place. With less natural light, the crematorium has an even more eerie aura. The fires still glow and pulse from within the thick, dancing streams of smoke. The people still gather and then dissipate. The remaining pyres will burn into the night and cold ashes will be collected the next day. Our time here has passed fleetingly. Ranjesh suggests that we move on, leave the mourners in peace to say their goodbyes to their loved ones. It is time to leave this place. It is time to ponder the surreal moments we have experienced.