A Varanasi Funeral

Many Hindus visit Varanasi, the ancient holy city of India for their pilgrimage and a few come to die here, and many others come to be thrown into the rivers of the Ganges.

Varanasi funeral-2

Sitting around the steps at the small burning ghat in the late afternoon (a daily event to watch the sunset) a group of men carried a body and placed it right in front of me, a narrow stretch of rather busy walkway. Passer-bys walk pass the body, few glimpses and nonchalant stares, some tourists gawked and snapped few photos.

The body was barely covered with a cloth, out in the open, with parts of the body exposed.  Gradually more people came, the body was undressed openly, with the face covered, syringe bag and tube taken out from the arm and tossed aside. A white cloth was placed and formed the loin cloth for the deceased. Brightly covered orange shroud wrapped the body.

Few tourists pass by and snapped a few shots and walked away, others stopped for a few seconds and gawked. Other locals gathered around to watch those tourists gawking.

Someone came over with a compact camera, the relatives exposed the face and lifted the upper body for photos to be taken together with the body, sort of a final family photo before the body is disposed. A young man saw me and caught my eye by gesturing me to come over with my camera to photograph his father. I politely went over and shook my head, offered some money for the funeral expenses. In my culture it was customary to offer some financial help for the funeral expenses whenever we see them.  Young man refused my money but still gestured for me to photograph him and his family with his dead father. I felt it was rather inappropriate and declined.

I was fascinated by the whole process.

Photographing Death was’nt as taboo for the family obviously, however irritatingly a few Indian passerbys stopped and told me don’t photograph them unless payment was given, obviously these shameless Indian men wanted to extort money from me, trying to take advantage of the situation.

The body was left out the in open, a few passerbys threw money on the body,  and a few rascal children quickly ran over and took the money.  Then the young man gestured me to place money on the body, I took out 200rupees and placed it on the body. A rascal boy quickly ran and snatched the money as soon as it touched the body.

A Belgian lady who was beside me, shooked her head, “I don’t understand why the family didn’t want any money you offered and let the beggar child steal the money”

I asked why they didn’t burn the body and was told it cost too much, 50,000 rupees to buy the wood for the funeral pyre. The funeral mafia sets the price which poor folks can’t afford. Fire wood was expensive, the whole burning ceremony needed a lot more money that poor folks can’t afford. Every thing in the burning ghats are controlled by the funeral mafia, from the death sadhus who perform the death ceremonies, to the wood sellers and ceremony items as well as the death photographer who takes family photos with the deceased.  It is all business in Varanasi, generations entrenched into this hindu affair. Death is big business here in Varanasi for generations.

Varanasi funeral boat - waiting for boat to arrive

The family, waiting for the boat to arrive

Then came the orange hair man, henna dyed, covered with a thick gold chain, and a big gold watch with some gold chains. Some negotiations went on, he spoke loudly to the brother of the deceased and walked away.

The body was taken down the stairs towards the river, the young man’s mother gestured me to come over. Me and my Belgian companion quickly went over, they might be sending the body off soon.  I asked if I could photograph them, and the brother of the deceased agreed.

We waited quite a long time, with some smattering of English and poor Hindi, I asked what was taking so long.  The boss of the boat man wanted more than 8000 rupees for the boat to throw the body into the river, and they were negotiating the price down to 5000 rupees.

I discretely pushed a 1000 rupee into the hands of the brother, but he would not take it. (eventually, the brother finally accepted my funeral alms after my insistence)

The orange haired man came out again and shouted at me, “No photos, stop stop!” waving his hands loudly at me. The brother of the deceased defending me, said something to the orange haired man, and the man shouted something back at him about tourists photographing them. Tourists need to pay money, he said to me. My Belgian friend and I told him off,  Pay you or the family, stop taking advantage of them!

Eventually a boat came over, the body lifted onto the boat and tied to a stab of rock. Unceremoniously the boat went barely off shore to the middle of the shallow waters and threw the body into the murky waters. It cost 5000 rupees for a short barely 2 meters off to the Ganges.

The deed was done, the crazy orange haired man suddenly calmed down, I asked him if he was the funeral owner, he smiled happily and said his family has been doing this for 100 generations, waving his arm with a large gold watch towards the boats. “See I own these boats, I rent it out to the poor families who can’t afford the burning funeral,  I help them out, otherwise the poor families cannot have their funerals. I take tourists out on those boats, I have a few boats. This is in my blood,  My family business. Come tomorrow, my boat will bring you around the river to watch sunrise, only 400 rupees”

Varanasi funeral-3

The family carrying the body to the boat

Varanasi funeral-4

Varanasi funeral-5

The boat barely off shore, in the background, a boat loaded with Indian tourists watching on, along with unsuspectingly tourist right beside the funeral boat.


One response to “A Varanasi Funeral

  1. Thank you for an excellent overview of an often misunderstood culture.

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