Photographer Madhur Dhingra is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this documentary photography. From the project ‘Tandav | The Dance Of Death’. To see Madhur’s body of work, click on any image.
An Enigma Called Death
Death has always fascinated me along with the myriad unsolved questions and the mystery that surrounds it. I have raised questions about it time and again when in the company of mystics, researching through books, and findings of science. I have finally come to an understanding that life (consciousness), like any other energy, is indestructible. Though there comes an end to the experiences undergone by it when it is in its finite mortal garb. Just as sound goes back into silence but never lost, also so the individual self or consciousness merges back into the fundamental ever flowing sea of Universal Consciousness (God), from which it may re-emerge once again at another time. Edward Munch poetically wrote,” From my rotting body, flowers shall grow, and I am in them and this is Eternity”.
Gloom engulfs people when they see the ephemeral nature of the world. But everything must die, even the innumerable faraway galaxies with all their planets and stars . For they too come under the same Eternal Law; whatever is born within the realm of Time will ultimately be destroyed some day. Those who lament this certitude of death view it from a narrow perspective. But Nature is wise and if decay and destruction were not present, the wheel of change would grind to a halt. Consciousness (life) was never born nor can it be destroyed and death is simply nature’s way of rechanneling. The BhagwadGeeta, the sacred text of the Hindus written over 5000 years ago in Sanskrit, states,
(The soul is never born nor dies at any time. Nor does it come into being when the body is created. Soul is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. Soul is not destroyed when the body dies )
(As a human being puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones)
According to Hinduism, the soul is immortal and it is the body alone that dies. Life, death and then rebirth are all a process of perfection for the soul. Birth and death are the game of Maya (माया). Maya has many meanings but can roughly be described as illusion or ignorance in English. For he who is born,the countdown towards death begins immediately. After death, the process to take another birth starts, according to his karma (कर्म) or actions performed and experiences gained during his lifetime. Life and death together form a never ending cycle through which each human being has to keep on going till he attains Moksha (मोक्ष)or liberation. Birth and death are merely doors of entry and exit on the stage of this world.Death is not the end of life. Life (consciousness) is one continuous never-ending process. Death is only a passing over and a necessary phenomenon, which every soul has to pass to gain experience for its further evolution.Dissolution of the body is no more than sleep. Just as a man sleeps and then wakes up, so is death and birth. Death is like sleep. Birth is like waking up. In reality, no one comes and no one goes ‘anywhere’ as we are we are all a part of Bramhan, the Supreme Consciousness which is deathless, timeless, causeless and beyond space. We merely merge back into that Brahman and re emerge once again from it.
Just as one moves from one house to another house, the soul passes from one body to another to gain experience and knowledge. Just as a man casting off worn-out clothes, takes new ones, so the dweller in this body, atma (आत्मा) casting off worn-out bodies, enters into others which are new. The final goal of the soul is to attain liberation (मोक्ष) through realization of its Oneness with God. The individual consciousness or atma (आत्मा) is an integral part of the Universal Consciousness (God) or Parmatma (परमात्मा). Due to the veil of Maya (माया), it is unable to recognize its true nature, hence keeps drifting from one body to another. This process of rebirth continues over and over till the time it gains enough experience and knowledge and realizes its Oneness with the Supreme Being. After physical death, the soul carries along with it its past memory, experience and knowledge.
In Hinduism, there is no concept of an external Hell. An unworthy soul goes through hellish states of mind with woeful rebirths. However, no states are permanent and a soul can again work its way up from any lower plane. Life in higher planes has a fixed time period. After enjoying the fruits of his good karma a soul is subject to sudden death here too. Ultimate liberation can only be achieved in the form of human birth and not in any higher plane of existence.
According to Buddhism, death is an integral part of life itself. All hopes, ambitions and fears we cherish during our lifetime will become irrelevant and redundant once we die. On the luminous continuity of existence which has no origin and which has no end, human beings project all the images of life and death, terror and joy, demons and gods. These images become our complete reality and we submit without thinking to their dance. In all the movements of this dance we project our greatest fears on death and we make every effort to ignore it. The fear of death has its roots in the apprehension of complete annihilation of one’s identity. There is’change’ happening all around.We all were once strong and youthful-, and then things changed with the passage of time. Youthfulness gave way to old age accompanied by sickness and death, rapidly ebbs the river of life.
However, death is not a complete annihilation, but merely an end of the physical body. Our consciousness will still remain and again seek attachment to a new body and new life. The self will be reborn according to his karma or the net result of its positive and negative actions.
The Burning Ghats
There are two important ghats for cremation of the dead in Varanasi, one is named Manikarnika Ghat and the other is called Harish Chandra Ghat, Manikarnika being more important of the two. People from all over India come to Varanasi to cremate their dead at Manikarnika. It is believed by the Hindus that a cremation at Manikarnika gives the human soul liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Pyres are being lit here continuously, without once getting extinguished for the last 3000 years. At Manikarnika, one comes face to face with death in all its starkness. The dead body of a Hindu is almost always cremated by fire except in the case of small babies or holy men, who are given a water burial. People dead by unnatural causes like accidents, snake bite or others are also given a water burial.
When a body is brought in for cremation at any of these two ghats, it is first bathed in the Ganga for purification. This ritual bathing is accompanied by chanting of mantras. Meanwhile the relatives of the deceased are engaged in purchasing wood required for burning the body. The logs of wood are then brought down manually to the place of cremation.
The bodies on both the ghats are cremated by people who are called Doms. They belong to the ‘Chandal’ community and are considered untouchables and are an outcast from the Hindu community . But in Varanasi these Doms are wealthy people .They are known to charge huge sums of money for their role in the cremation of the dead. In the Hindu tradition, when the dead body is brought to the cremation ghat, it is the Dom who lays down the first five logs of wood required for the funeral pyre. The remaining wood is laid down by the relatives of the deceased. The Dom then hands over the ‘lighted straw’ ( brought from the sacred eternal fire)to the eldest son of the deceased or in case there is no son it is the wife or husband who lights the funeral pyre with that bunch of burning straw.
Dom Rajas are keepers of the holy flame revered by all Hindus. No matchstick is used to light a pyre. All bodies must be cremated by the holy fire that has been burning for centuries in Dom Raja’s hearth. Dom Raja is the leader of a two-tier hierarchy of Doms and coordinates all duties assigned to other Doms. The two burning ghats at Varanasi, the Harishchandra Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat are crowded with hordes of these lower order of Doms. They begin their funeral duties by offering a prayer to Kallu Dom. The Doms build up the funeral pyre methodically after the body has been bathed in the Ganga. To make sure the body keeps burning, they poke it with long poles from time to time. When the corpse is half burnt, then the deceased person’s son performs ‘kapal kriya’ (ceremonial breaking of the skull of a corpse), where he taps the head of the corpse with a long bamboo stick three times and then throws it in the pyre, assisted by the Dom. This ritual of ‘kapal kriya’ symbolizes that the individual soul is now completely relieved from the clutches of its material body and is now ready to move on to other non physical dimensions. The son then stands towards the feet of the deceased facing south, while holding an earthen pot filled with water on the shoulder. Holes are made in the pot and the son moves around the body three times. Thereafter, he throws the pot backwards so as to break it without looking back. This symbolizes the breaking away of all emotional and physical attachments of the departed soul with his current life. After the body is completely burnt, the fire is extinguished with water from the Ganga. The ashes are then gathered and are cast into the Ganges, where another set of Doms neck-deep in the charcoal black water search for valuables that can’t be taken off the dead, like gold teeth or firmly embossed rings. Life and Death are seen to move on concurrently on these ghats of Kashi.
Ironically, it was on this ‘Burning Ghat’ that I had my worst experience. I would visit this ghat daily to observe the ongoing cremations. I saw a continuous inflow of dead bodies coming in from all parts of India as it is the desire of most devout Hindus to be cremated only at the Manikarnika Ghat. It was not very long before I realised that whenever a body of a poor person would come in, it would be cremated in a bizarre manner. It requires approximately 40 kgs of wood to cover the human body completely (from head to toe) for cremation. But sometimes the people accompanying the dead body did not have enough money to buy the required quantity of wood. Hence only that much wood is purchased in which only the torso can be covered. The legs and head are left hanging out and the pyre is lit. The body gets burnt in such a horrific manner that the head and feet fall away from the torso, partially burnt, with the skin melting due to heat. Then these torn away parts were picked up and put back into the pyre, as though barbequing the human body. If the body is still not fully burnt, the remaining un- burnt parts are thrown into the Ganga for the fish to eat. This whole sequence was so bizarre that I decided to capture on my camera and show this ritual to the world. Man was definitely meeting his God in this 3000 year old Ghat, but in a bizarre and extremely undignified manner.
All images & text © Madhur Dhingra
By Madhur Dhingra
Madhur’s Previous Contributions To Edge Of Humanity Magazine