A cremation ghat in Varanasi may not seem the most likely place to sit with a cup of chai, but that’s what I did one evening in late April of 2018.
It was the first chai stand that I’d come across all day, and considering the location, the atmosphere was quite lively. I bought my chai and sat on a makeshift bench, taking in the spectacle; noisy children played cricket with a tennis ball, and occasionally a group of men would arrive bearing a body on a stretcher.
As I sat there, a body was laid just two feet in front of me as the bearers went to fetch chai. No one was shooing away the scavenging dogs, so I thought it was the least I could do.
The young man who I had sat next to greeted me with a firm handshake. “I am Raj,” he said with a beaming smile.
Being wary of ulterior motives at first, I soon discovered that Raj was genuinely friendly. He held the position of a hereditary caretaker of the cremation ground; a guardian of the ritual fire that is used to light funeral pyres.
He was surprised to hear that I was studying Sanskrit, and he offered to buy me another cup of chai.
Raj took me to see the eternal fire, which is kept alive as crackling embers in a simple shrine room nearby. The cremations are carried out day and night, as they have been for many centuries, and as a member of the Dom caste – though regarded by society to be the most untouchable – Raj was deeply proud of his inherited responsibility.
After paying our respects at a small shrine to the Goddess Kālī, Raj led me to a spot overlooking the main burning ground from where we could watch the sunset.
Knowing that a certain sect of holy men known as Aghoris carry human skulls as objects of contemplation, I asked Raj where the skulls came from if bodies are traditionally cremated.
He told me about the exceptions to cremation: the bodies of holy men, pregnant women, young children, and those killed by snakebite. Instead of being cremated, these bodies are deposited directly into the river, and skulls sometimes wash up on the riverbanks.
We then sat quietly watching the sunset over the Ganges, until Raj turned to me and asked, “Do you want a skull?”.