The City Of Death: Capturing The Landscape Of Hindu Cremation Rituals In Varanasi

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The City of Death“, a documentary directed by Janna Tolstikova, encapsulates the essence of the holy city of India, Varanasi. It wonderfully captures the cycle of life and death. Contrary to popular notions, death is celebrated in Varanasi. According to certain mythological beliefs Lord Shiva had provided the boon of salvation to those who die in Kashi. Those who do not die here, are often brought in the form of ashes to be immersed in the holy water of the Ganges. Religious texts such as Skanda Purana mention that in Kashi, the universe is created and destroyed at the beginning and end of the cosmic cycle. And Manikarnika Ghat is the place where this process is kept in perpetual motion by a constant stream of cremations. Here the Manikarnika Kund symbolises life and Manikarnika Ghat symbolises death.

The documentary draws attention to the Hindu ritual of cremation. Due to Hindu beliefs about the whole idea of Moksha, around 200-400 bodies are cremated at the ghats of Manikarnika and Harischandra every day. In just eight minutes, the documentary very well captures every vital aspect related to cremation. One of the most interesting things depicted was a chat with boatmen and Dom funeral workers, who play a major role in cremation rituals along with the devotees who come to Kashi to offer Pinda daana. Devotees who come to offer prayers at the Ganges mentioned their reason for coming to Varanasi that— “soul of their deceased parents can rest in peace and can be freed from the circle of birth and death”.

The caste system is deeply rooted in the Indian society– which outcasts certain sections of the population based on their ascribed status. Dom belongs to an ‘untouchable caste’ because of the mythical belief that they deal with death daily, and thus, are permanently polluted. They play a crucial role in death rituals in Varanasi. In the documentary, Dom workers reveal that, “For 600 years, several generations of our family have been helping people in the journey beyond”.

In popular opinion, they are the torchbearers and often known as the custodians of salvation. In the documentary, one can see a Dom sieve ashes in Ganges water in search of some jewellery on the dead body, which is a proclaimed right of this community. According to certain myths, Lord Shiva had provided a boon that whoever gets ‘agni’ the auspicious fire from a Dom’s hand will attain liberation from the cycle of life and death. From time immemorial, the Dom community is earning their livelihood through this work. Because of this lower status in the caste hierarchy, they often become victims of marginalisation and exploitation. Also, due to the task of burning the corpses, they face certain occupational hazards—  where they sometimes lost their eyes, even getting burnt by fire many a time. The caste-based discrimination adds to the plight of the Dom funeral workers who are denied certain services.

Photo Taken In Varanasi, India/Getty

The documentary focuses on all crucial rituals of death, which start from shaving of the head of the chief mourner, followed by bringing the corpse on a bamboo shaft to the cremation ground. Then after paying tax for ‘agni’ (auspicious fire) to the Dom, the dead body is taken into the Ganges for cleansing it to befit sacrifices. Then the pyre is arranged by Dom— who attends to it till the body is completely burnt. It also highlights that in Hindu tradition, some bodies are considered unfit for consumption by fire— such as the body of ascetics, pregnant women, and infants. So their bodies are instead immersed in Ganges. Every year, 45,ooo uncremated bodies are deposited at the bottom of the Ganges, as shown in the documentary.

On the other hand, the documentary points out the critical issue of the polluted waters of the Ganges. The Ganges, which is considered as the holy ‘mother’ in Hindu tradition, is deteriorating gradually. Ritual practices of Hindu cremation have caused disposal of garlands and polythene into the waters, apart from the discharge of sewage, the immersion of ashes and human corpses. Not only do the pollutants deteriorate the water quality but they also affect the life cycle of aquatic organisms and humans. As the documentary shows; the water is full of infections such as bloody flux, Hepatitis, Cholera and even Typhus.

One of the most overlooked aspects of disposing off of the dead body is that if any person was suffering from an infectious disease and is immersed in the Ganges after death, then the chances of the spread of infection are more likely. Besides, dogs can be seen scavenging on the remains of the bodies at cremation ghats. Thus, it becomes important to understand that people should celebrate their religious beliefs and ideas but simultaneously take into account its environmental ramifications. This documentary wonderfully captures the aspects related to death in the holy city of Varanasi.

The documentary does an exemplary work by capturing the landscape of Hindu cremation rituals in Varanasi. To those researching or planning to visit the place sometime in the future, I would highly recommend watching this documentary once.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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Read more about the campaign here.

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Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

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campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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