Himalayan thaw. Dirty bath water. Dish water. Sewage system. The gateway to Moksa. Buffalo waterhole. Laundromat. Eternal liberation’s holy gateway. Twenty-four hour crematorium. Human soup. The Ganges.
From behind a fence of blackened sticks, I watched bodies burned down to nothing. As fire claimed an older woman, I lifted a corner of my shirt to my nose against the smoke, wincing. I watched her – hair white and whisked, lips pursed and dry, eyes closed and still – just anybody’s grandmother – transubstantiated down to a blackened pelvis, a lump of charcoal, prodded with the fire tender’s pole.
“The men burn all the way to rib cages, and that’s it. Women burn all the way until there is only their pelvises. In the end, those things are remaining,” a trying guide had tempted me with details. “The river bed is full of them – pelvises and rib cages …”
“And do you ever see anything rise from the corpse as it burns?” I had only wished to ask. “A light? A spark? A hope? David Bowie?”
Realizing the dank stench of my clothes, I grinned. Why yes, hadn’t I just been at a barbecue? My attempts at humouring myself were just annoying – habitual, jittery, nervous narration.
From a banal and overshadowed mango lassi, I queasily flowed down the dank alleyways to my damp cement room – to change and be free of that moist, campfire aroma. Reluctant to dress again after showering, and sweltering, I sat in shorts and meditated.
No quieted guilt. To think of nothing wasn’t avoiding an obligation to live and solve the puzzle; it was the sane thing to do – the answer – to rehearse for the end. Meditation has been called the practice of dying, after all.
I wanted distance – from attachment, expectations, all the makes of mortal delusion. I could achieve it by closing my eyes on it all. I wanted to live with minimal indignation from lust, greed, gluttony – the whole spectrum based outside the reality of our impermanence. Faced with death, these conclusions belonged to me as much as to India.
Eight thousands kilometres away on the island of Bali, the Hindu religion is no longer an introduced species; over thousands of years, it has come into its own, capable now of criticizing its origins. The same month I sat against the blackened walls of Shiva Gott, I was also the foreign photo guy at an elaborate village cremation here in Indonesia. Flanking a river and popular bathing hole, the village’s name, Keramas, is onomatopoeic, creatively signifying the lathering of the scalp.
Om Komang is a middle-aged Balinese man, the meticulous office boy who had invited me to document the cremation of one of his eight brothers whom I’d never met. Komang met me at the main t-junction and led me to his father’s traditional home where we had coffee and caught up. Soon his brother’s body was carried passed us down the road led by a parade of extended family. His brothers proceeded, carrying a symbolic rope in front of a full and noisy gamelan ensemble, the gong heartbeat of the swaggering pilgrimage.
The twenty men struggling to bring the pyre down the road were walking symbols of the support a Hindu man receives from his community. The strain and swagger of the tower’s trip down the road was a musical dramatization of the soul’s journey to a better place. To pass wires on the street, a man ran ahead with a bamboo crutch, propping up the cables. Straddling the shrouded corpse two meters above everybody, the deceased’s nephew, eight-year-old Agus, happily looked out over the chaotic parade.
In the shade of an old-growth tree that ballooned above us, the procession circled around a few times before delivering the pyre to the burning fields. The orchestra kept in step and tempo, bringing a cartoonish air to the scene. The purpose of this final nuance, this dance of the dead, clashes with western ideas but makes sense when let sink in. The family, keeping hush any wish to have the deceased return, disorients the departed. Why, after all, would any clear-headed person want to repeat the experience of life on earth? Selflessly, they were shoving him away towards real peace, liberation from rebirth, Moksa – as if he were merely going to work aboard a cruise ship, again.
In a blond field above Keramas stood a black bull, a fish with an elephant’s head, and a fanged, red, winged cow. I photographed Komang’s family as they caught up. The brothers’ many hands rose to withdraw the corpse from the pyre, placing the body inside of the red cow sarcophagus. All of the vessels loaded, the finely crafted coffins were then pumped full of vaporous gas – as firemen looked on.
Long a collector of doves, the birds came cooing along with the procession, cages dangling like earrings from the man’s pyre. Then they were set free. The release had power enough to justify a cinematic cliché. The flock whooshing above the grassy field grew – as did the reverberating whistle from plastic tags attached to their little, forked feet.
As torches were brought, family gathered around and fire and smoke rose up to choke the whirling doves. The great effigies in the field burst, flamed, crackled, and smouldered for hours.
Ashes neatly contained, a smaller pyre, the third and final vehicle, would deliver the gray matter to the distant ocean – into which the Ganges feed. But before the community of Keramas made their way Kelod, or seaward, relatives took turns rolling a pinch of wet ashes between two stones – as if to make it finer. It struck me as their last intimacy with the deceased in the material world.
After a Pedanda led us in prayer, Komang on the back of my scooter, we followed Kelod. The crowd at the beach, nearing a hundred, was not unanimously sombre. Children borrowed phones to play games, men smoked kretek and made small talk, ate a late dinner of nasi jingo – but the intimacy of that moment, being the family’s last time as a complete unit, put a damper on spontaneity.
The pyres and ashes set adrift, the five families broke off in silence beneath the rhythmic hiss of the waves. Before turning away from the ocean, each person lifted their right hand, flipping it frontwards, backwards, frontwards … giving the royal wave as if seeing this employee aboard cruise ships off on another long sea voyage.
We pulled away from the beach in a contented, speechless convoy of motorcycles; women sat sideways in ceremonial kebaya. Like a node at the end of a branch on a tall tree, for family, this was finality, closure. Like a teenager going to their bedroom after hours of tearing their throat out at their parents, there was sweet catharsis. The din of symbols and rituals colored the tropical night, cohesively.