“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.
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.