writing

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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Without Words

The mountains are hostile. They are dry and threatening. I am a speck on their trail, they are the vast, foreboding backdrop of the isolated Phuktal Monastery. The barren Himalayas, the cooling winds and the snow resting on mountain tops are constant reminders of the unrelenting winter to come.

Spilling from the mouth of a cave, the Gompa corridors wind up and down the mountain face. The darkness is warm, the shadows repeat mantras in low tones and footsteps echo through the dusty tunnels. The monks lead lives of devoted solitude, there is a calm, contentment in the aloneness, a feeling of inherent peace with the seclusion from the outside world. This stillness is only broken by the young lamas, who playfully interrupt the otherwise disciplined, stoic atmosphere.

My words quickly expire. My mind is quiet. Life becomes simple. The mountain is my clock. The rushing river is my music. The hypnotic gong vibrates through the valley and the black crows circling above call me for meals.

Together, we teach, we learn, we sip tea, we shake hands, we share food, we sway in unison before each meal. We connect, without words.

 

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