Monday, May 4, 2009

India: Pyres by the River

I went to India to stay at the Christian-Hindu ashram of Father Bede Griffiths originally founded by Ahbishiktananda. I kept a journal while I was there. I typed most of the journal into a now lost Wordstar document. But I have a printout. This was one entry…

My first night at Shantivanam there was a pyre down by the Kaveri River. An old woman from a nearby village had died. They carried her on a brightly decorated rack down to the river bank. A pit was dug there beside a forest of planted Eucalyptus trees. A breeze was always blowing in from the wide river late in the afternoons.

Her body was wrapped in white cloth, placed into a shallow pit on top of some wood, and covered in a concoction of mostly mud and the dung from cattle. It slid over the body, drying quickly to form a kind of shell. Then the wood was set ablaze.

All the while a Brahmin chanted. The woman’s oldest son had his head shaved. As the smoke started to thicken people held out parts of their garments to catch the river’s breeze. The bright reds and oranges and yellows looked festive as they flapped like flags. The smoke carried back through the ashram where occasionally you would catch a faint scent of burning flesh.

I’ve seen several pyres since then. Each morning after a burning some representative of the family returns to the shallow pit to search for remains. If the bones are not all thoroughly reduced to ashes it is considered a bad omen. Pineapple, milk, and bananas are left behind as an offering to the expired soul.

One night, after all family members had departed and the body was left alone, I cautiously walked up to it. I stood right beside the head, now covered completely and flaming in its makeshift oven. Hearing a human body burn quietly, removed from all the world and even the light of day, touched me.

No comments: