Varanasi Feature


The Economics of Burning

Public cremation is the norm for Hindus throughout India, but the spiritual implications of being cremated in Varanasi make dying here an especially celebratory occasion. The idea is that because the Ganges is so holy, a spiritual cleansing in this water means easier achievement of moksha, the release from the cycle of rebirth. In Varanasi bodies are wrapped in silk or linen—traditionally white for men, red or orange for women—and carried through the streets on bamboo stretchers to the smoking pyres of the burning ghat. Then, after a brief immersion in the Ganges and a short wait, the body is placed on the pyre for the ritual that precedes the cremation. Funeral parties dressed in white, the color of mourning, surround the deceased. Photographing funeral ghats is strictly forbidden, but you are allowed to watch.

So dying in Varanasi will get you closer to achieving purification and moksha—but even here, there are still obstacles to achieving the ultimate release from the cycle of rebirth, and money is the most common problem. A proper wood cremation ceremony, even in one's hometown, involves basic expenses that much of India's poor majority simply cannot afford. The most expensive aspect is the wood itself, costing about Rs. 150 for 40 kg. With a minimum requirement of about 300 kg, the price of wood cremation starts at Rs. 1,125. Other supplies include ghee (clarified butter), sandalwood powder, and cloth to prepare the body—and there's a tax to be paid, too. The total price for the ritual usually comes to a minimum of Rs. 2,000. Add to that the cost of traveling to Varanasi, and the prospect of honoring the dead at the bank of the Ganges becomes financially daunting—many of the poorest people in India make only Rs. 2,000 a month or less.

To help with cost, traditional funeral pyres share space at the burning ghat with Varanasi's one electric cremation center. Burning a body here costs just Rs. 500, a fraction of the cost of wood cremation, though still expensive by Indian standards. A lack of money, in fact, is probably the best explanation for a body drifting by during a boat ride on the Ganges. It's unlawful to offer dead bodies to the river now, except in the case of a pregnant woman, a child younger than 5, someone with smallpox, someone who has been bitten by a cobra, or a holy man—Hindus believe that gods live inside these bodies, so they can't be burned. But in the absence of money for a cremation, poor relatives often have no other choice but to break the law if they want to honor the dead in the holiest of waters.

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