|Smoke from the funeral pyres rises over Manikarnika, a crematorium on the banks of the Gangaa River in Varanasi, India.|
| Burning the stones
In a place without memory, life becomes art
They come here from all over India to wait for death, in the most auspicious place for dying.
This is the holy city of Varanasi, in northern India. Here, the eyes can witness the crimson sun rising from the Gangaa's waters at the break of day. Here stands Manikarnika, the burning ghat, a stone crematorium built on a massive bank over the River, right at the point where she finishes her bend to the north and once again turns to the east.
Here, men burn away the dead, and burn away history.
I stand at the third-floor window of a hospice building in the city's center, watching Manikarnika. It is the hour of dusk. The heat of the day departs, leaving thin mist and burning stones behind. The sweet fragrance of sandalwood ascends from four funeral fires below. Boats loaded with firewood are roped to the bank. Boys shout and spring from them, swimming and playing catch in water murky from the ash.
Hindu men, most of them dressed in the mourning color of white, surround the fires. Women are not permitted at the cremation site, for their cries would taint the soul's journey. In Varanasi, death is the ticket to liberation, an ending to the painful cycle of rebirths.
The corpse in the pyre on the far left has been completely consumed by flames. A man with a shaven head, the deceased's eldest son, turns his back to the fire and lifts an earthen pot filled with water from the Gangaa. He throws it over his right shoulder. The flames hiss. The vessel shatters. Men collect the smoldering ashes, and cast them into the river.
In the brownish water millions of lives merge into one. And from this Mother, lives are born again. How many generations have been carried away like this?
From a narrow lane stretching to the ghat I hear a chant. The words accompany the procession of a colorful bier as it makes its way to the fires.
Burning the stones