Last week I was in Banaras, the ancient holy city on the banks of the river Ganga. The city was shrouded in mist, creating an ethereal aura, which made me feel like I had stepped back in time. As the boat sliced through the placid water of the Ganga taking us to our hotel, the ghats were dotted with people and bustling with activity. Banaras natives and a few tourists walked, sun-bathed, wiped themselves off after a dip in the holy river, prayed and simply loitered around the stone steps of the ghats, which must have been trod on by generations of humankind from all over the world. Plumes of smoke rose from the Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats, designated spots for Hindu cremations, which operated like well-oiled machines throughout the day and night. As the boat continued its journey through the river, I could see figures shouldering the bodies of their deceased family and friends, wrapped in white sheets, walking down the steps towards the banks of the river where they would be cremated.
It is believed that if one dies in Banaras, or Kashi as it is known in folklore, and one’s ashes are released into the Ganga, one is released from the cycle of births and deaths, and achieves moksha or the end of the birth and death cycle. The maze-like streets and gullies of the city are scattered with mukti bhavans or death hostels, where people come to die to attain this elusive moksha.
Life and death, I learned, co-exist like two sides of a colourful, vibrant coin. Each is celebrated and revered. Life is a preparation for death and death is a celebration of life. Having lived with the belief that death is a cause for sorrow and something to be dreaded, this attitude towards death was as refreshing as it was inexplicable to me. Funeral processions could be mistaken for wedding celebrations, and are often accompanied by music and dancing. As we sat on a boat watching the spectacular performance of the Ganga aarti on the Dashashwamedh Ghat, seven priests clad in white and gold silk kurtas and dhotis gracefully maneuvered the gleaming brass Jaisakshi lamps, lit with 31 diyas. Our boatman, a multi-generational Banaras native, answered out questions patiently and told us stories about the origins of Banaras and its relation to death. “Sahi Holi voh hoti hai, jo asthiyon ke saath khelte hai (The best Holi is the one that is played with ashes from the remains of the dead)”, he said jovially. “Yahan jeevan mein maut hai, aur maut mein jeevan (here there is death in life, and life in death)”.
Three days in Banaras passed in a heartbeat and we are now back to our humdrum lives in the city. But if there is one thing that I have brought back with me, it is the realization that life, especially in this time of uncertainty and fear over a virus that has taken over our lives and world, must be lived fearlessly, fully, and expansively. We must “suck out all the marrow of life”, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, with awareness and appreciation of death, as there is a celebration of life.