It is morning in Mamallapuram, a small coastal town 40 minutes south of Chennai in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This morning, as I do each morning, I walk along the beach before the cafes open, watching the waves there mass and roll and break into hissing white foam gilded by the blinding horizontal sun. And this morning, as happens every morning that I walk here, I pass the dead dog lying at the edge of the surf.
The first day it was lying on its side, in the little depression in the sand its body made, and bloating, with a weird mortal pathetic snarl and its piebald skin all wet as the water would shush up around it and then wash back. There was a family bathing in the sea maybe ten meters away, either oblivious to the dead dog slowly rotting on the beach or unconcerned by it.
A day later, running in the sunrise along the beach, I see that the dog has been pushed up by the last night’s tide and now lies on its stomach, muzzle buried in the sand as if it were very tired. I am surprised to see that its eyes are still there, looking all mucid and cloudy as a couple of crows hop around the carcass, pecking at it in the sharp, spasmodic way crows do.
Everywhere around the fishermen are gathering and mending their nets before they set out for the day, laughing and talking beside the colorful little boats that cluster on the shore, totally uninterested in the body of the dog which is lying there mere feet away from them, and sadly bloating.
There is something about this business of the dog that fascinates me, something about how naturally it is regarded, lying there rotting comfortably on a tourist beach and nobody batting an eye. Each day as it lies there people splash in the surf nearby – children laughing, families on holiday – and yet still the dog remains, looking so sad with its muzzle pushed into the sand and its empty eyes.
It seems a strange and vivid thing to my American sensibilities, which scream that death must be kept apart, and sterilized, not left here to contaminate the living with its bleak reminders. But here on the shore in this tiny town in Tamil Nadu the dog lies undisturbed. Nobody denies it, and no one has asked that it be removed from view. And if the dog is a stark reminder of the reality of death, it is a reminder that has been stripped of its capacity to startle.
As the legend goes, Buddhism itself began here, in India, as a flight from the ever-present reality of death. The story is well known: a prince outside his palace cloister in what is now southern Nepal happens upon an old man, a sick man, and a dead man, and afflicted by these revelations of morality sets out across the eastern Indo-Gangetic plain, through the wilderness and patchwork city-states of ancient India. For years the historical Buddha wandered and practiced austerities, seeking liberation from the sickness, suffering and death of the human body. And while it’s well known that his travels eventually led him to Sarnath, where he preached his first sermon of Buddhist law, it is the where of Sarnath that usually escapes notice.
Just miles from one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world, Sarnath was (and still is) little more than a morning’s walk from the city known today as Varanasi, and in the Buddha’s day as the eponymous capital of the Kingdom of Kashi. So when the Buddha opened his mouth to preach the first words of Buddhist dharma, it did not happen in isolation, static as a museum frieze, but in fact a mere stone’s throw from what was already one of the most important religious centers of the ancient world.
People came to Kashi to die. For Hindus, Kashi (the city of the great god Shiva) was synonymous with liberation, and dying within its precincts conferred upon them absolute moksha – a final release from the cycles of living and dying. The dead were burned there on the west bank of the Ganges in the final Hindu rites, consumed by flames said to have already been burning for a thousand years. Those riverbanks were the heart of a thriving city with a great economy of death, a place permeated (and made rich) by mortality.
Hinduism, though, mediated its liberation through a vast priestly caste, the Brahmins, and all such priestly classes exacted a price. Poor and surrounded by the immense mortality of the city of Kashi, it is easy to imagine how compelling the Buddha’s egalitarian gospel of bodily liberation must have been to people living in that time and place in the world, their death plain all around them.
Today in Varanasi, more than 2000 years later, scales at the Ganges riverside still measure out the weight of wood to fuel the cremations, every last bite of flesh exactly paid for. Standing there myself on a late December morning in 2007, breathing in the smell of smoke with the heat of the cremation fires on my face, I can imagine a figure – the Buddha – cut out of the indistinct shapes the mind makes of legend, watching as I do a raw red foot tumble out of the fire, charred bone at its edges, to be tipped by outcastes back into the flames; watching, without romance and without mystery, what becomes of what is human.
There is though perhaps another lesson to be found here, in this impermanence without romance, in the candidness of human perishing. Here on the banks of the same grey Ganges, the ash from the burning dead settles on my jacket and on the bare brown shoulders and shorn heads of the Brahmins. It settles in the hair of the indifferent boys talking on mobile phones and drifts over the kettles and the tiny earthenware cups of the chai vendors and up into the air above the city. That air is alive already this day with a hundred paper kites, their orange and red and blue paper rustling as they dive and swoop and dip above the boxy rooftops.
Below in the narrow streets, the dead are borne on bamboo litters in shrouds of gold and white fabric, and draped in garlands of marigolds. The processions with the dead pass by and the living move aside, and when the dead have passed, the living go on living – buying fruit or cigarettes, pursuing tourists, and doing wash.
And no one, I realize looking around me, no one is looking for death as an excuse here, because death in this place is never far away. There on the ghats with the smell of burning filling my head I close my eyes and feel the sense of life swelling within me to unbearable fullness.
Within the fullness rests a simple truth: My life will end, incomplete, and that ending makes the incompleteness precious.
In the middle of that imperfect life, lived like all others in equal parts futility and beauty, I open my eyes and thru the tears see the heat-lines from the funeral fires make distorted shapes of the boats floating on the slack grey water of the Ganga.
There is only so much time.