• Hassan Ansah

A Pedacito of The Dance of Life & Death in Kolkata

Updated: Jun 19

After dealing with the fairly recent passing of my mother, I decided to take a long-planned trip to India. Seeking answers pertaining to some of life’s most vexing questions, what better way to find healing than to enter the abode of the birthplace of some of the world’s greatest religious philosophies.

Meeting locals and handling snakes in Kolkata, India
Meeting locals and handling snakes in Kolkata, India

Life and death are intrinsically interwoven throughout India. Thus, it can be hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. Of all of her cities, Kolkata reflects this to the extreme.


This proud intellectual yet paradoxical capital of India resonates with an artistic and cultural heartbeat. Revolutionary and often a pioneer for social change, Kolkata birthed great writers and thinkers such as Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, and Oscar-winning filmmaker Satyajit Ray.


Found alongside this great cultural intelligentsia lye crumbling architectural structures, grime and moss grow on tattered buildings, and debilitating poverty is exhumed with almost rapturous indifference.


A 2020 census lists the city’s population as around 18 million; however, unofficial counts estimate the population to be around 21 to twenty-two million. For every person living in a home or apartment, at least three or four people live on the streets. Many consider Kolkata to be unofficially the most populous city worldwide.

A local posing for my camera in Kolkata, India
A local posing for my camera in Kolkata, India

There is so much activity that the city seems to be in constant fast forward motion. Walking down the deep labyrinths of central Kolkata streets, passing the famous Kalighat Kali temple, I observe where the goddess of death dances her violent waltz. Here, she faces the peaceful, yet brooding Missionaries of Charity, where Mother Teresa practiced her selfless compassion towards India’s most destitute.


After traveling through what seems to be a maze of a city, I finally arrive at the Keoratola Cremation ground set amongst the Hooghly River, a tribute of the famous Ganges. The setting is raw, yet strangely gentile. Most Westerners are familiar with the Burning Ghats of Varanasi, but I have always felt more of a sense of intimacy and authenticity within this dichotomy of a dwelling.

A statue of the goddess of death as she dances her waltz in Kolkata, India
A statue of the goddess of death as she dances her waltz in Kolkata, India

I met a small community of Dalit cremation workers. The Dalit, formally known as India’s untouchables, are the lowest caste and often the poorest members of India’s society. This so-called: subset, the most contemptible wretched of all of India’s caste, are also its ferry people to the spirit world.


Criminals, prostitutes, and even garbage collectors look down on them. Yet all Hindus are cremated at death, and the lowly Dalits become all-powerful gatekeepers to the other side. Hence, death reconciles the plethora of India’s classes.


As the sun begins to set hauntingly over the Hooghly River, there is a strange feeling of being at the crossroads of two worlds, where the living and dead come to collusion, hidden from us mere mortals but tangible and lucidly communicated. Brothers Daku and Sahib have been steadily setting the afternoon’s corpses together.


The brothers are now working on an elderly aged man, making sure the limbs are properly arranged for incineration. The other bodies have been brought on bamboo stretchers placed together on what resembles straw thatches. Each has been carefully wrapped together almost meticulously, allowing the family to prepare multiple bodies for cremation.

A body being prepared for cremation in Kolkata
A body being prepared for cremation in Kolkata

The group of mourning families seemed too thin; the sounds of drums and flutes echoing through the stoic tears of women seemed to fade further into the chaotic Kolkata sunset. The only people left on the ghat are a few wandering sadhus (Indian Holy Men), children, and a curious goat.

An Indian holyman in Kolkata sits with his curious goat
An Indian holyman in Kolkata sits with his curious goat

Daku was sawing away at the wooden poles, chopping them down to the same size as the body they carried. It allows them to control the fire. As cremation workers, Daku and his brother Sahib are directly responsible for the burning of corpses. They each work from 5 am until midnight every single day. There is never a time to rest, death is everywhere and she is a selfish lover, sahib states.


I ask the brothers, “What they think of the social caste system and their job?” Daku shakes his head, “I don’t think about it at all. We each believe that our place in this world is to burn bodies. The system was created by the gods, so who are we to challenge this divine plan?


Although we are poor and don’t have access to many modern conveniences, we are familiar with many stories in the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu holy book that emphasizes the need to face and honor one’s lot in life.

The brothers are accepting of their profession and place in Kolkata's society
The brothers are accepting of their profession and place in Kolkata's society

By submitting to our karma regardless of the challenges that it may present, there is the hope of a better social standing in another life. For us, duty is the most important thing in life. This has been the tradition for us as far back as we can remember. It gives us purpose and a sense of continuity against the sometimes-cruel world of poverty and the caste system.”


The old man’s body burns on the pyre. He lies motionless on top of five-cross stacked logs. The heat permeates the air, at times obscuring the scenery, and the smell of flesh is overwhelming. Seemingly thick skin melts away like plastic, covered with cloth and bone; only the head remained, looking unreal, otherworldly, and ghostly.

An example of Kolkata's cremation ceremony
An example of Kolkata's cremation ceremony

The body meets eternity with magnanimous stoicism. At this stage, all social distinctions: wealth, education, gender, and caste disappear and burn away beneath the relentless flame. Death becomes the great equalizer. Here one is vividly reminded of the city’s guardian Goddess Kali, the black mother that defies time, space, cultural and social edifices.


Swirling in a frenzied dance that allows the sacred and the profane to merge, brings both death and rebirth, change and continuity, ignorance and enlightenment, and most importantly Liberation. My visit to Kolkata’s Keoratola cremation ground was a window into time: allowing my mother’s death to be more ephemeral in an experiential way.

 

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