Allen and The Burning Ghats of India

Allen Ginsberg, 36 years old in India, 1962 – photo: Peter Orlovsky (with Allen’s camera) courtesy Stanford University Libraries / Allen Ginsberg Estate

December 13, 1962
from Indian Journals 

Rajendraprasad Ghat, Varanasi – photo: Bob Rosenthal

Out with Peter Thurs. nite to Manikarnika ghat. Sat on stone ledges above the ash sand shelf filled with woodpile fires aburning cows putting their big nose heads near under the foot of the pile bed — flame lighting his forehead, eye most closed, chewing some yellow stalks of straw kindling — boy chased three cows out of the rectangle garden of fire — they were eating up a corpse litter prematurely — or horsing around in the way — the nearby corpse masked in white shroud lay back in the flames & turned black, knees hanging down, the veil burning away and one ear sticking too far out, later became a thin black mummy in flames — the furthest we saw lit up, later the bamboo attendants thwacked it in the middle and turned it face down in the flames, skull hanging over the side in the fire — the middle corpse had burnt thru the belly which fell out, intestines sprang up (that is) like a jack in the box charcoal glumpf — then its right leg and foot came up in silhouette as the pole boy shifted it to the top first, then the other leg and foot spreading big toes was poled up and over bouncing like a soft log — and his hand (or hers it seemed to have a charred bracelet round the forearm) slowly lifted from the chest as the bulk burned — fires playing orange around from black cranium along the sides, over the lifted hand — and the two feet flung back over detached and burning over the middle of the bed — like burning fear away — I thought, burning the dross inside me — Dogs curled asleep on the shady steps as the moon rose over the western sky with Orion near, and the flat plate of Ganges stretching up to the faraway river shore beach — fires reflected in the waters as we went away, white mist reddened flaring out over the water, blocked by the huge castle embankment steps & high Dharmashala of brick where the dying came to spend last days breathing smoke.

from “Allen Ginsberg in India – An Interview by Suranjan Ganguly in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature,  October 1993

SG: What was your experience of the burning ghats?

AG: I went there several times a week and stayed there very late at night. For one thing I was amazed by the openness of death, the visibility of death which is hidden and powdered and rouged and buried in a coffin in the West. To suggest the opposite, the openness of it is like an education which is totally different from the cultivation of the notion of the corpse as still relevant and alive and “don’t kick it over.” There they just lay it out and burn it and the family watches the dissolution; they see the emptiness in front of them, the emptiness of the body in front of them. So I had the opportunity to see the inside of the human body, to see the face cracked and torn, fallen off, the brains bubbling and burning. And reading Ramakrishna at the time – the dead body is nothing but an old pillow, an empty pillow, like burning an old pillow. Nothing to be afraid of. So it removed a lot of the fear of the corpse that we have in the West. And then I saw people singing outside on Thursday nights and other nights too. That was amazing, and the noise was rousing, very loud, and I would sit around, pay attention and listen, and try and get the words. I saw lady yogis meditating in the ash pit. I remember one lady who I thought was defenseless and poverty-stricken, so I offered her some coins and she spit on them and threw them back at me. And there was one very strange evening when I drank some bhang – it must have been mixed with datura – and went there with a completely screwed-up head, hallucinating. And I thought I was in the used Vomit Market, everybody was so poor that they were selling vomit! Slept on a stone bench inside the temple all night and woke up and found my slippers gone. Pretty funny . . .

SG: In the journals, there are so many graphic details of bodies burning—as if you were getting high on death . . .

AG: I don’t think I was. After all death is half of life. I was just describing life as I saw it.

For Herbert Huncke on the burning ghats – see here 



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