As I sit in a boat and traverse the crescent-shaped length of the Ganga which hugs Kashi, better known today as Varanasi, I am forced to think about death and dying.

Even before I arrive at Manikarnika Ghat, I see the smoke rising in the air and know that someone is being cremated.

I watch the constituents of what was once a human body rise upwards in a column. The flames dim a little and the man who guides the performance of the rituals stokes the fire so that the body burns faster. The ashes will later be pushed into the Ganga.

Nearby, another body, draped in white cloth, is being prepared for cremation. A few metres away, a man and a woman are salvaging bamboo poles used to carry the body to the ghat, for use again.

In any town or settlement, the cremation ground is at a discreet distance, for people do not want to be reminded of death. Is that why we use incinerators today? Does the mechanical nature of sanitised cremation cocoon us from having to face death, and our own mortality?

But here, in Kashi, the cremation ground is in the old city’s centre, out in the open for everyone to see. It forces me—as I’m certain it does others who visit this ancient city—to reflect on death. In Kashi, death is watching constantly.

The body turning to ashes reminds me of the reason Hindus place a dab of ash on their foreheads after prayer. It is a self-reminder that one day this body too will become ash and therefore one should take good care of the body, live life well, see God in everyone, and prepare to pass on to the next stage of their journey.

Looking at the corpse on the riverbank being prepared for cremation, a horrifying thought spears my body. That is me. Not today, perhaps not tomorrow; but certainly one day soon death will come for me. I shudder. Why? I don’t know. It is not as if I have not seen dead bodies before; it is not as if I have not encountered death before.

But the feeling (or is it fear?) that I will become extinct wraps its tentacles around me as I sit on this boat in the middle of the Ganges River in India, far away from my home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  Death always happens to others, doesn’t it? But here, in Kashi, I feel the urgent breath of death on my face.

I remember a conversation I had with a friend at a relative’s funeral sometime ago. “Everyone dies. We have to accept death,” he said. How often we mouth these meaningless words at funerals!  I nodded, trying to look worldly-wise. It is so easy to accept death if it happens to someone else, isn’t it? What if it happens to a loved one? What if it happens to me?

Manikarnika Ghat whispers that death is not something that could happen to me; it is something that will happen to me. In defining my existence, death defines me.

Manikarnika Ghat whispers that death is not something that could happen to me; it is something that will happen to me. In defining my existence, death defines me.

Where will I die? In the sanitised, otherworldly cleanliness of a hospital where most people die these days? I wonder if even half the people who die in hospitals —sedated with painkillers as they are—are conscious that they are passing on.

The image of tubes tunnelling through my morphine-filled body as I lie immobile and breathe through—no, because of—an artificial respirator causes another shudder. I don’t want such a death.  Where is the dignity in that? There was a time when the phrase “death with dignity” held meaning. Today, often, death comes while one—drugged to the hilt—is attached to 101 machines and tubes.

In this City of Shiva, I pray for a cleaner, swifter passing. Perhaps while lying in bed. Here, in this place which has seen the likes of the Buddha, Mahavira, Shankaracharya, Tulsidas, Kabir and Nanak, I make supplication for a conscious, calm cessation.

I can’t take my eyes off the ritual by the riverbank. A similar sight had greeted me when I went by a day earlier. Then, however, a young man was putting a torch to the funeral pyre.

This time I tell the boatman to stop rowing; I want to watch.

It is a simple ritual, over in minutes. How ironic. Suppose the person cremated had been 70 years old, it would mean 70 years of eating and grooming the body and expanding the mind had vanished in but a few minutes.

What a waste.  Why would God, or Nature, or whatever, go to all this trouble to sculpt a human being and then let it disintegrate?

Why clothe this physicochemical protoplasm—containing an unimaginable 75 trillion cells—in a covering called skin, string it with kilometres of capillaries and nerves, wire it up with intricate brain circuitry and inject it with the ability to question its very nature, only to destroy it?

It doesn’t make sense. Then again, should it?

Who was the cremated person, anyway? Wealthy? Hah, how would his wealth serve him now?  Or perhaps he’d been a top politician. What good are his oratorical skills now? Obviously they weren’t good enough to keep death at bay. Perhaps he had been one of those skilled at manipulating people. And how will those skills help him now? Perhaps all his children are doctors. But what good is that to him now?

Forget him, what about me? How will I meet Lord Yama when he comes for me? Will I cry? Will I protest? Will I sigh with resignation? Will I bargain with him? Will I even have time to do any of these?

Then, just as quickly, a smile forms. I think of what Epicurus said: “When we are, death is absent, and, when death is present, we are not any more.” Is he right?

Then again, the Katha Upanishad says: “The Inspired Self is not born nor does it die; It springs from nothing and becomes nothing. Unborn, Permanent, Unchanging, Primordial, It is not destroyed when the body is destroyed.”

What does it matter? The world will go on as usual without me. I have always been told that I am a unique human being, just as everyone else is unique. One of a kind, I am told. Where will this uniqueness go when my body goes up in smoke, just as the smoke that was a man (or woman) continues to spread in my bowl of the sky?

And when I die, where will I go? No one has returned to say there is a heaven, or a hell. As the boatman starts rowing again, I notice the few family members around the funeral pyre. However, no one is crying. No one looks even remotely sad.

If there is one place on earth where death is not feared, it must be Kashi. In fact, as I am learning, death is invited, sought after. Kashi is truly a paradox: the sense of death is palpable; equally powerful, if not more, is the sense of God’s presence.

But then, this is the abode of Shiva, the Lord of Transformation, the Lord of Destruction. The image of Shiva dancing in a cemetery is an integral part of Hindu iconography. Did that idea originate in Kashi, I wonder.


For some, the image of Shiva wearing a garland of skulls dancing in a graveyard is difficult to digest; but Hindus learn that Shiva destroys the ego and transforms lives. The image is to shock the mind out of its stupor, so that it can face death. Does it also imply that one should see the divine even in death?

After all, didn’t I learn that I am to see Shiva in everything and wasn’t I taught to start any writing, in Tamil, with the words “Oo Sivamayam” (everything is Shiva)? Perhaps it signifies that death is not to be feared precisely because it is an act of the divine.

Kashi, I begin to realise, makes the transition from this world to that world easier.

As I imbibe the city whose ethos has remained unchanged for more than 3,000 years, I am reminded that only a single syllable separates Shiva (The Auspicious) from shava (corpse).

How appropriate, I think, as I take this slow ride along the river that is revered by Hindus as Ganga Mata (Mother Ganga).

Shiva and shava are part of everyday life in this riverside city.

For, above Manikarnika Ghat, I see a group of young children running around. Near Niranjani Ghat some boys are playing cricket. Off several ghats, pilgrims and residents are taking their ritual dip to cleanse themselves of commissions and omissions, of their karma.  I see dhobis washing clothes.

A few cows watch as we go by. A couple of dogs chase each other in the distance. If that is not enough, a flock of birds flies overhead close to us, some of them swooping down to feed on grains thrown by tourists or boatmen.

Yes, there is death in Kashi, but there is rebirth too. I look at the people—the boatman and those on the ghats—busy with their lives while living in the presence of death.  But then, death in Kashi promises liberation. The whole city is the Mahashamshana (Great Cremation Ground) of Shiva.

The city itself has seen death and destruction several times over the years. On at least six occasions it was ransacked by Muslim invaders, and temples destroyed. Each time, they were rebuilt. Kashi’s main temple, the Visvanath Temple, for instance, was razed several times, the last time by Aurangzeb, who built a mosque on its site. The present temple was rebuilt in 1776 by Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore. The mosque and temple stand adjacent to each other today.

On Dec 7, 2010, a bomb blast at Sitala Ghat, which I had earlier passed, killed a two-year old girl sitting on her mother's lap, and wounded 38 others. They were all waiting to watch the evening Aarti .The Indian Mujahideen had claimed responsibility for that act.

But today, the Aarti goes on, as if nothing happened.

As I move away from Manikarnika Ghat, a question arises of its own volition: when I die, what dies? It is not a new question: millions have asked this question, especially in Kashi. What I have read in Hindu texts bubble to the surface: death is but another change, just as the person changes from baby to youth to old age. Death denotes a change of body or, if someone is ready, a journey back to God or Brahman, the indescribable Being.

I have read that the body is but the locus of the Atma which never dies; that there are many “me”s. What if I were an atheist? Wouldn’t it be the end of the only “me”? What then? Aren’t these merely words we spin to describe or imagine what we can never know until we die? Whose version is right?

Then again, does right or wrong matter at the time of death?

I have learned that as birth marks the onset of death, we should accept it, prepare for it, and even rejoice when it comes; that unlike our ephemeral bodies, we are eternal beings on a long journey of self-discovery; that we have occupied many bodies before and will continue to do so in the future, according to the progress we make on this journey; that we should live well and die well; that death can be a blissful experience if we prepare for it through meditation.

What I read, what I learned, was deposited in memory, just as what I learned about History or Science was tucked away in the deep recesses of memory. It is akin to classroom learning.

But, Kashi—which respects death, which rejoices in death—is a living text, a laboratory. After watching the cremations, after seeing old faces happy with expectation at the coming of death, after visiting Kashi Visvanath Temple, and after taking a dip in Mother Ganga, a spiritual osmosis occurs.

Here, I can argue with Lord Yama, the Lord of Death, because, in Kashi, I am under the protection of Shiva. Here, death promises transcendence. In Kashi, death stares at me. And I smile.