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India's Forests, Fires, and Funerals

FEEDING THE PYRES Alleyways near the Ganges are piled high with wood destined for the cremation grounds.
                 
In the holy city of Varanasi, can the ancient death rituals of Hinduism be reconciled with the preservation of India’s dwindling forests?

In ancient times, according to Hindu legend, there was a place called Anandavana, the Forest of Bliss, which spread out along the Ganges to the south of the sacred city of Kashi, which is known today as Benares, Banaras, or Varanasi. Its shady groves offered an idyllic setting for temples, ashrams, and places of meditation.

The Forest of Bliss, like most of India’s forests, is long gone. There are many reasons for this, but one important one is hinted at in a song by the sixteenth-century poet-saint Kabir that is sometimes heard on the cremation grounds of Varanasi, as mourners wait for the fire to be lit and debate the purpose and meaning of life.

Dekh tamasha lakri ka
Jite lakri
Marte lakri

See the spectacle of wood
You need wood when you are alive
You need wood when you die

Cremation on a wood pyre, followed by consignment of the ashes to the Ganges, is the highest aspiration of every devout Hindu. But what if the most sacred ritual of one of the world’s great religions is also a real and growing environmental threat? Just do the math, says Anshul Garg, who grew up in a pious Hindu household, trained as a computer engineer, worked in India’s high-tech capital, Bangalore, and now runs a small New Delhi organization called Mokshda ("the one who gives salvation"). India has 1.25 billion people; 10 million die each year; more than 80 percent are Hindu; almost all are cremated; and burning a body takes anywhere from 400 to more than 1,000 pounds of wood. By Garg’s calculations, this equates to as much as 750 square miles of forest. Add to that the carbon emissions from eight million pyres and the uncountable tons of ash dumped into the Ganges and other sacred rivers, most of which are already open sewers.

Photo Gallery: India's Sacred Fires

There’s an alternative, Garg says: a cremation system that is designed -- unlike a conventional modern crematorium -- to give mourners full and open access to the body, allowing them to conduct all the ancient funerary rituals of Hinduism, while burning only a third as much wood. He took us to see one of Mokshda’s first working units, in New Delhi. The most surprising thing about it (other than the video camera that allows those unable to attend to watch the ceremony via live online streaming) was a sign bearing the name of Mokshda’s sponsoring partner, the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation of India, accompanied by a poster with the image of a weeping tree. Mokshda has spent the past 20 years tinkering with its design and seeking the understanding and support of religious and civic authorities. Now, with the oil and gas corporation’s interest in financing 300 units in cities all across India -- including Varanasi, the holiest of them all -- Garg hopes that Mokshda’s time has come.

A body was burning when we arrived, and the convex metal sides of the apparatus were concentrating the roaring flames into a tall, tapering chimney. All that escaped from the top was the faintest wisp of pale gray smoke. Yet Garg was not happy. Though the body had been almost completely reduced to ash, several logs, only lightly charred, were scattered around at the base of the pyre. "They didn’t have to use so much wood," he complained. "The problem is the pandits -- the priests. They also double as the wood sellers here, and all they care about is their money, not the environment."

I thought often of that comment during the week that the photographer Agnès Dherbeys and I later spent on and around the cremation grounds of Varanasi. What it suggested was that Mokshda’s task will not be easy, because, for motives both pious and venal, almost everyone involved in the long chain of the cremation business, from the time the ax bites into the tree trunk to the moment the ashes are shoveled into the Ganges, has a vested interest in cutting, selling, and burning as much wood as they can.

JEWEL OF THE EAR

Varanasi is a challenging place to most visitors -- and there are many of them, from the earnest, dreadlocked hippies who affect the manner of a Hindu saddhu to the boatloads of Japanese package tourists wearing white face masks. Hindus call Varanasi "the city of light" and believe that it literally floats above the earth, immune to the ravages of time, free from hunger and suffering. But to the visitor it can be intense, dark, almost hallucinatory in its strangeness. It is a city of crumbling buildings, filth-choked alleyways, innumerable backstreet shrines and temples, emaciated widows holding out begging bowls, ascetics smeared with ash from the cremation grounds -- a tumult of poverty, disease, and religion that is extreme even by Indian standards. What the visitor sees as pollution, however, the devout Hindu sees as purity. The pilgrims crowding the ghats -- the steep steps that line the riverbank -- to take their "holy dip" in the Ganges are not courting disease from the river’s off-the-charts E. coli levels but immersing themselves in the purifying embrace of a goddess, Ma Ganga.

On the cremation grounds, where the outsider may see a morbid obsession with death, a Banarsi sees both deep and complex ritual and the everyday secular hustle of life. The two burning ghats even come with their own resident menagerie. Cows and water buffalo lie around placidly among the pyres; rib-thin goats munch on discarded garlands of marigolds; roving packs of street dogs engage in sudden, vicious fights; mongooses scuttle in and out of the woodpiles; monkeys observe the scene from nearby rooftops.

At the spiritual heart of Varanasi are the perpetual fires of Manikarnika, the larger of the two cremation grounds. But Manikarnika is not just the center of the city; to Hindus, it is the navel of the world, the very spot where the universe had its origins. It is said that the great god Shiva, creator, destroyer, and conqueror of death, was wandering in the Forest of Bliss with his consort, Parvati, when they decided to fashion another being, Vishnu, who would bring the cosmos into existence. When they saw what he had accomplished, Lord Shiva trembled with delight and dropped his earring. Thenceforth, he decreed, the place should be known as Manikarnika, "jewel of the ear." And by undergoing the sacrament of fire on this spot, Hindus would achieve moksha, liberation from the endless cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation.

THE COMMISSION MEN

Yet this is also a place of commerce and bargaining, a world of middlemen and "commissions," an infinitely elastic term in which only a thin line separates the taking of a legitimate percentage on a business deal from outright extortion and bribery. The cycle of commissions begins deep in the forest. With limited exceptions, it is illegal to cut down a tree in India; only dead ones or those that have been blown down in storms may be harvested. But as with many laws in India, there is theory and there is practice. Hiking one day through a rare patch of forest 40 miles or so south of Varanasi, I chanced upon a man and two women carrying axes. Another man labored up a nearby hillside, bent under a heavy bundle of wood.

"When I came here 45 years ago, this was all forest," said the owner of a nearby chai stall where I stopped to take refuge from the paralyzing heat. "There were tigers, bears, and cheetahs. Now the forests are gone, and the only animals are humans."

"But surely the Forest Department sends out patrols to look for illegal loggers?"

"Oh yes, every day."

Seeing my puzzlement, he smiled. "You don’t understand. They go out every day to find the loggers, but to look for bribes, not to report them."

This pattern continues throughout the journey of wood to its destination. A Varanasi timber broker, two wood sellers at Manikarnika, and a former government forestry official in New Delhi all told a similar story. The woodcutters work for powerful local merchants (the word mafia is not uncommonly used). Some of the wood is smuggled into the city by riverboat under cover of night, although the official venue for the trade is the Forest Department depot, where wood is sold at auction -- all of it certified, with a nudge and a wink, as the result of deadfalls and blowdowns. Brokers match up auctioneers with buyers and levy their commission. Then the trucking contractor comes in: another commission. From the trucker to the porters to the boatmen who ferry the wood to the burning ghats: more commissions. And payoffs to police and government officials at every stage.

"Everywhere there is a commission man," said one of the wood sellers. "If you are not using the commission man, you cannot get business. Here at Manikarnika, the moment they see a body coming, they look for ways to make money."

"In Banarsi culture," said the man who later arranged for us to have unrestricted access to Manikarnika, "you pay a commission when you’re born, you pay a commission when you go to the temple, and you pay a commission when you die."

Fifty percent of the laboriously negotiated "commission" that we paid this man for access, according to someone who knows him well, would go to the local police.

THE BUSINESS OF DEATH

Once the wood trucks unload their cargo at Raj Ghat, a couple of miles downstream from Manikarnika, issues of caste begin to kick in, and while caste distinctions are generally eroding in the new, prosperous India we hear so much about, they are very much alive in Varanasi. The milkman caste, the Yadaw, has great influence in the wood business. Boatmen are Mallah, as are the porters who carry the eight tons of wood from each truck down a treacherous, garbage-strewn slope to the waiting boats. If one overlooks the porter in the Gucci T-shirt, the scene is very much what a nineteenth-century official of the Raj might have witnessed, or for that matter a sixteenth-century Mughal invader: scrawny, undernourished men shouldering 200-pound logs in 100-degree temperatures, for less than three dollars a day.

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OnEarth's executive editor has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19... READ MORE >