Life’s embers

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Life's embers

Varanasi, India

Varanasi is a city that features many spiritual aspects, the most prominent of which is its way to handle death: few places are so open and direct with seeing a life come to an end.

In the past the deceased were sent floating down the Ganges river. However, since this resulted in high contamination levels in the water and remains washing up on shores, the practice became – for most – to burn the bodies and spread the ashes in the river. This sacred ritual is done on cremation sites, also known as burning ghats.

Most of the numerous ghats in Varanasi are places where people go to bathe, in the Ganges river. But a few of them are burning ghats – the largest of which is the Manikarnika Ghat, pictured above. Throughout the ghat enormous piles of wood lay stacked, constantly being fed into the several fires. The firewood is of a special kind and therefore expensive, and for the people who are there to send off the deceased it’s usually a big investment – not only an emotional one but a monetary one as well.

One thing that is good to know before I go on, and this is something everyone entering Varanasi are told: taking photos of the cremation sites is strictly forbidden. You could get into serious trouble, not with the nonexistent law enforcement, but with the relatives and workers at the ghat.

So as Lauri, my traveling companion on this leg of the journey, and I entered the premises of the Manikarnika Ghat we politely put our cameras away. Immediately a few locals approached us, claiming to be some kind of authorities in the area and wanted to show us around. We let them know that we weren’t interested and would rather just walk around and mind our own business. They were persistent; Lauri got fed up with them and went off to the perimeter to find things by himself. Meanwhile I was stuck with the two guys, one of which proceeded to inform me that he’s also into selling opium. Not really my cup of tea, so no thanks.

I turned to the other guy, who claimed to be a foreman for the firewood workers. He told me there’s a place where I could get a good look over the area, if I wanted to. I assessed the situation and decided to follow him. A few corners later we came out to a ledge, close to the river bank, overlooking the cremation site.

People were offloading firewood from boats, carrying it up to the fires. By the water others were going through ashes and remains, looking for jewellery. Off to one side a fire was burning, at the last stages of the cremation process. Next to it a few bodies were lined up, wrapped in orange cloth and waiting for their turn.

Taking in the scene, we talked about the price of firewood, and how that’s something one could donate to. Sensing an opportunity I asked if there are any ways a tourist might be allowed to take a few photos; if the foreman carried enough weight in the community to permit that, and it actually being ok with all parties. Well, as it turned out, that was probably exactly what he had in mind, and after some negotiations we agreed that for 500 rupees I was allowed to take two photos. Being high up on the ledge, in plain sight of everyone, I knew this wasn’t going to be a few snapshots off the hip. Everyone was going to see what I was about to do, and I wanted to make sure they also see the foreman standing next to me. If it was a sanctioned exploit perhaps my intrusion would be forgiven.

I took out my camera and was as discreet as I could about it. Point, click, pan, click – done. Camera away. Gave 500 rupees to the guy and started doing a retreat while I could.

Too late.

Another guy rushed up to the ledge. “Hey, you took photos, we need to go see the boss now”, he said in a firm tone.

I told him of my agreement with the foreman, who was still standing next to me, and told him that whatever issue he had he could take it up with him. They started arguing between each other, in hindi, which indicated that either one or possibly both were pretending to have authority that they didn’t possess. The new guy said ok, we could solve this between us if I gave him 500 rupees too. I told him he can split the money with the foreman, I wasn’t having any of this. But they were persuasive, and I had no desire to escalate this over such a relatively small amount of money, so I handed the new guy 500 as well, and started walking.

This is where things got a bit sticky. The two guys ran after me and blocked my exit – an aggressive move that I hadn’t come across with the previous miscreants. They wanted more money. I told them no. We had an agreement and I already paid more than that, so they were just going to have to accept it. They started pleading, saying there were many ways to solve this – this being the nice way. They insinuated what the other way meant: tourists had been robbed and assaulted over these matters, cameras had been thrown into fires and such. If I paid them 500 rupees extra, each, that would make the problem go away.

Now, in a situation like this there are several options: I could give in and cough up the money, and possibly feel tricked. Or I could call their bluff and just force my way out. But the thing is, I didn’t know the nature of the community I was in, and what role they played in it. If the community’s attitude towards photographers was as unforgiving as I had understood, and these guys were some sort of leaders in it, I could get into serious trouble if I got on the wrong side of them. Or they could be just scoundrels who had no backup from the others whatsoever. I couldn’t know.

So the bottom line was I had more to lose on this than they did. Reluctantly I paid them the additional money and shoved my way through before they could come up with more bullshit. Met up with Lauri a way down the street and had a laugh about it – admittedly a little relieved.

In the end though, I got to document a sacred area and situation – a rarity that relatively few have access to. Granted, it cost me 2000 rupees, but I can live with that.

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