journalism

They burn the dead

When a Dom is born, it is said that people weep, they weep for the newborn’s impending life of hardship on one of the bottom rungs of Hindu society.  As an Untouchable, they’re destined for an almost inescapable life of ‘unclean work’ in the community.

In a culture where death is viewed as contagious and touching the deceased as impure, it is the Dom’s job to burn the dead.  They weigh the wood and build the pyre.  On the banks of the holy Ganges, they burn over 70 bodies each day. Using scarves as masks, they walk with heat and smoke.  They bend and break the bones until only ash is left.  After the fire has burned, they sift through the remains for gold teeth and jewellery.

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The Holy City

In the early morning, there is a pocket of time, just as the sun rises, before the crowds descend onto the ghats, before the heat sets in, when the eternal river seems deserted – there is a moment of clarity.

Bodies lie sleeping in the morning cool, a barefoot family undress dutifully and walk in silent admiration to the water’s edge, a few men bathe quietly, drifting with the cleansing current, another prays, eyes closed and cross-legged. It is now, in this moment, a moment that passes in seconds that I can fully feel the holiness of this city, the reverence in the devotees and the sacredness of the flowing river.

A sacred feeling, although it is ever-present, in this moment, it is untainted by crowds, pollution, stray animals, heat or hassle. It is these few seconds that I will remember when I recall the holy city of Varanasi.

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Leaving Ceylon

When we met, we were polite and awkward like all new friends. I knew I liked you, but I didn’t understand you.  You were bright, colourful, full of life.  I was hesitant, shy, self-conscious.  You were always busy, sometimes it felt like I was in the way, but your smile reassured me.  You fed me, food and experiences I had never tasted.  Flavours I long to taste again.

You reminded me of a simpler way.  You were detached from possessions but dependent on nature.  Sometimes you opened up, you spoke of your pain, your loss, your sorrow.  I listened.  You were hot and cold, sometimes it felt like you were angry, like you were testing me.  But I learned, behind that intensity was a calmness, an inner peace, an acceptance of the extreme emotions you feel.

I hope we will meet again, and like old friends we will embrace and reminisce of that time we first met.

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Time to remember

Back home a full moon appears as a surprise.  A chance gaze upward or a clear sky that allows the moon to shine bright would remind me of the beauty and mystery that lies above.  I was so absorbed in the routine of everyday life that a full moon seemed random.

In the west we are so conscious of the passing layers of time.  Seconds, minutes, hours quickly become days, weeks and years – we’re constantly looking forward to something – the end of work, the weekend, a holiday.  Clocks go round autonomously, we’re surrounded by phones, watches, computers but amidst all the counting it’s like we’ve lost track of time.

Poya in Sri Lanka is the Buddhist public holiday that celebrates the full moon.  It allows longer days to enjoy with family, moonlit dinners and a monthly connection to the natural cycle of light and darkness.  Practicing Buddhists visit the temple for worship and the consumption of meat and alcohol is forbidden.  In June the Poya day is called Poson and honours the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka.

Our power to manipulate light has allowed us to escape the limitations of darkness but we have also become disconnected from the true progression of time.  Poya was a reminder for me to acknowledge and appreciate the original time-keepers – the moon and the sun.

 

 

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