Benares, also known as Varanasi,
is the holiest city in India and one of the oldest living cities of the
world. It is built on the banks of the
sacred river Ganges – a place of pilgrimage and home to Shiva, the volatile and
compassionate god who is known as the destroyer of worlds. It is in Benares where one can obtain
“moksha,” when the soul is freed from the cycle of reincarnation through birth
and death. Hindus bring their dead to
this city for cremation on the banks, and spread the ashes into the river. There are even hostels where the elderly can
come to die. As a geriatrician I became
interested in these customs, and traveled to Benares to learn and observe. On the banks of the Ganges I unexpectedly
found a celebration of old age.
To get to the river you need to
wind through ancient alleys only a few feet wide, lined with beggars and shared
with sacred cows that wander freely.
Along the banks are Ghats, or large sets of stairs that lead to the
water. The Ghats are where people gather
to bathe, pray, socialize, and do laundry.
There are more than 100 Ghats along the Gangese River in Benares. Each has its own symbolism and special
atmosphere, but the air in all of them is charged with spirituality and scented
Then there are the Burning Ghats
– places where families bring their dead for cremation. The body is draped in a saffron colored robe
and garlands of flowers and carried on a litter to a platform on the bank, then
covered with wood imported from other parts of India. On the roads into the city I saw trucks
bearing dead trees and bodies strapped to roofs of cars, all destined for the Burning
Ghats along the Gangese.
The Burning Ghats are serious
places where photography is frowned upon, so I found a comfortable spot some
distance away and set up my telephoto lens.
This was fine with me because the acrid smoke burned my eyes and made
the air difficult to breathe. I spent
hours watching and taking notes, and when night fell the fire and smoke took on
a supernatural, unearthly aura. As the
time passed I noticed occasional cheers rising from the direction where the cremations
were taking place.
The cheers were joyful and
triumphant, sometimes accompanied by what sounded like pounding drums. The sounds rose quickly into the night sky
then faded away. This struck me as
curious and unreal, coming from a location where funerals were taking
place. It happened again and again, and
finally I turned to my guide and asked him about it.
“When a very old person goes, we
celebrate and cheer for a life well lived,” he told me. The glow and smoke from the fires suddenly
took on new meaning for me with this brief but unexpected celebration of old
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Dr. Jeff Levine’s photography
exhibit entitled “An International Celebration of Aging” will be at the
University of Michigan Medical Center as part of their Gifts of Art Program from June to August, 2015. Follow him on Instagram @jlevinemd.