Skip to content

Cowboys and Indians

Nathaniel Wander

Cross-Cultural Contrasts in Costumery and Weather perception

Grandmother Chatterjee was the guest of honor.  She was dressed in a sparkling white dhoti, normally the traditional lower garment of a male, but very like her everyday plain-white widow’s sari.  Her hair was freshly washed and combed, her forehead decorated with sandalwood paste.  Her cheeks glistened with ghee, the soles of her feet shone with vermillion.  She was garlanded with leis of waxy-petaled white flowers.  We were escorting her to Tribeni—the confluence of three rivers: holy Ganga and Saraswati and the purely imaginary Lakshmi—where she was to be burnt.

My initiation into death in Bengal and its rituals

I’d been living in the five-thousand-person West Bengal village of Shonapalashi for almost six weeks when I was called to Grandmother Chatterjee’s house on 17 January 1977, to photograph her body surrounded by her large and sorrowful family.  I had gotten myself into a world of bother with photography when I first arrived in the village: for two days, visitors lined up in front of my house, pressing and jostling to have their pictures taken, especially with the Polaroid that shot out developed photos almost as soon as they were snapped—they had never seen such a thing.  I didn’t know a polite way to say “No”: there really wasn’t one, but as I learned, my visitors were being extremely rude by Bengali standards anyway.  When Bikas Chatterjee told me that most of the photo-seekers weren’t even from Palashi village, I closed up shop.  My stock of Polaroid film was limited and not easily replaceable; it was intended to create thank-you gifts for people helping with my research.

Bikas Chatterjee—Grandmother Chatterjee’s late husband was Bikas’ paternal grandfather’s brother—was a twenty-year old university student with a thin mustache and a twinkle in his eye even when he was trying to look serious.  We had started becoming friends almost from the day I’d arrived in the village.  His parents had been so kind and welcoming, I was happy to be of service to them.  Sristidhar-da, a high school teacher, spoke English far better than I would ever speak Bengali, so that was the language we usually conversed in, but when his wife Nirmala-ma joined us on their verandah, she would adjure: “Apnara bangla-kota bolun,” ‘Speak Bengali, you guys.’  Having come to Bengal almost directly from five months in Peru—I was still being treated for Amazonian amoebas as I began hosting Gangetic ones—I was pleasantly surprised by a woman behaving so assertively.

Preparing Grandmother Chatterjee for her journey

When I arrived at the scene, Grandmother Chatterjee was already laid out on the hard-packed earth just outside the walls of her house-yard.  She would have been carried outside before she died—had she died indoors, a wall would have had to be broken to let her spirit out.   She lay on a comforter, her head on a pillow as if asleep, her hands folded upon her breast around her well-worn copy of the Bhagavad Gita.  The Gita is a long religious poem whose preeminent theme is the responsibility of the warrior to oppose evil and defend order.  Hinduism has generalized this to everyone’s responsibility to uphold dharma, to “do the right thing.”

A stake-sided truck parked beside the house, led me to surmise that Grandmother Chatterjee would be driven to the Ganges for cremation.  Visitors are amazed that so polluted a stream can be so holy, but that is precisely Ganga Devi’s trick: she flows down pure from Lord Shiva’s grimy, cremation-ash-smeared dreadlocks as he sits in meditation on Mt. Kailash, and she purifies all she comes in contact with.  Not wishing to impose on the family’s mourning, it was with some diffidence that I asked if I might accompany them to the burning ghat—what an anthropologist’s dream that would be!   No imposition was involved: it was an honor for a sahib to join them and soon I was more participant than observer.

Counting myself, fourteen men accompanied Grandmother Chatterjee to the shamshan ghat ‘cremation grounds’: nine were relatives including my friends Bikas and Anadi Chatterjee; two owed and were owed various ritual obligations by her son, Shantiram-babu, the muk-agni, who would place fire (agni) into the corpse’s mouth (muk); two musicians and singers of kirtanaya, the hymns to Lord Krishna.   The best-known, possibly only kirtan known in the West is, of course, the Hare Krishna.

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna

Krishna Krishna Hare Hare

Hare Rama Hare Rama

Rama Rama Hare Hare

Since this was the principal kirtan we sang in the back of the truck—all the more vigorously as it slowed when passing through any inhabited area (in three and a half hours, we traveled thirty-two miles)—I readily joined in.  I knew this ‘chorus’ well enough, though I was hearing the Bengali ‘verses’ for the first time.  The little I could then understand seemed to be addressed to the spirit of the deceased, cautioning her that she was commencing a journey upon which none could go along.  (Back in the village thirteen hours later, we were each instructed to embrace a mango tree representing the spirit of life, requesting it to accompany each of us in our individual aloneness.)  My companions were pleased to hear me join the singing.  I said that I had learned it from the Beatles—I didn’t want to try and explain Allen Ginsberg.

As we finally entered the narrow, crowded streets of Tribeni, the truck driver wanted to take the easier route to the banks of the Saraswati.  This was unthinkable to the funeral party: only the Ganga would do.  I believe this went beyond religious devotion, beyond even concerns for Grandmother Chatterjee’s journey to nirbanan (from which she would either be reborn or released from the need), though both seemed sincere and potent.  The family was of the highest economic as well as ritual statuses; the Chatterjees well understood it was required of them to undertake and be seen to undertake the greatest effort and expense possible.

While this was a serious endeavor for all these reasons, it seemed far from a solemn one.  When not singing kirtanaya or calling “Bol Hari” (‘Say God’) the young men in particular had bantered and teased throughout the journey: even Santiram sometimes joined in.  When we were met by ‘congestion’ at the burning ghat—we needed to wait on the availability of a local purohit —our group went into town to drink tea.  When the older men left us, though,it was whisky not chai we younger men went looking for; we settled for chai. Observation of subsequent funerals convinced me that, if there was anything untoward about this, it was only that they sought to drink spirits before the ceremony. After funerals, Bengalis drank liquor and smoked ganja so freely (well, maybe not Brahmins), I joked that they must have been a lost tribe of Ireland.

When we returned to the beach—a few men had remained behind with the body—a pyre had been constructed and Grandmother Chatterjee’s stretcher laid beside it.  Her body had been uncovered and was being rubbed in ghee.  She was then carried down to the river to be bathed and after, returned to her stretcher. The purohit and Santiram faced each other, kneeling on Grandmother Chatterjee’s right, the priest beside her head, the son at her feet. The priest initiated a series of mantras which Santibabu repeated: he seemed familiar with the formulas, but perhaps not to know them by heart. When I sponsored a Saraswati puja back in the village a week later, I struggled enough to repeat the mantras after the purohit, but there was no getting around it.  Apart from photography, the villagers had seen me constantly engaged in writing and reading—obviously I was a pandit; obviously Saraswati was my patron deity; obviously I felt obliged to honor her.

This pandit identification continued to trouble me through my year in Palashi.  Actual village pandits assumed I spoke Sanskrit as they did and would not be disabused.  We would exchange greetings in Bengali; they would immediately switch to Sanskrit.  Ordinary Begalis, on the other hand, were delighted at learning I spoke their mother tongue … the immediately switched into Hindi.  “Hindi Janina.  Bangla kotha boli,” I would respond.  Another round of delighted Bengali to mark my accomplishment … followed by more Hindi.  If the scholars couldn’t imagine I didn’t speak their language, ordinary Bengalis equally couldn’t imagine I did.

Eventually I concluded that in their experience, if Europeans bothered to learn an Indian language, it was invariably Hindi-Urdu.  The best response I ever had was on a bus returning from Shantinikaten late in my stay.  Approaching Bardhaman, a traveler from Birbhum District asked me for directions in town.  When I answered him, he looked at me puzzledly. “You speak Bengali with an accent,” he observed.  “Where in India are you originally from?”

Before Grandmother Chatterjee’s body could be laid atop the pyre, her son was required to give pinda—a ‘lump’ that Santiram prepared by mashing boiled rice, ghee and til (sesame seed) in a new clay pot. He placed the pinda in the mouth of the corpse, again from the right.

There remained two more significant rituals, employing fire at the outset and water at the close—a dichotomy whose importance to my research I was yet to recognize. Santiram held a bundle of hollow reeds that the purohit set alight.  As muk-agni he circled the pyre three times in a clockwise direction from the right, touching the fiery stalks to the corpse’s mouth and finally setting the pyre alight.  As muk agni followed pinda daan, it gave the impression of being a negative feeding.  The body, I was told, contains five bhut, a word with many overlapping meanings, but best translated here as ‘desire;’ the dead who cannot shed their bhut are in danger of becoming trapped on earth as ghosts. (In the chalit basa or vernacular, bhut also glosses as ‘ghost,’ of which I shall have more to say below.)  Ros ‘juice’—the bhut of taste—resides in the mouth.  Muk agni seemed like a prompt to cease desiring: there’s no more ros for you anymore.

As he’d set the funeral pyre alight, Santibabu also initiated its quenching.  He was sent to the river to fetch water in a clay pot, cracked but not so badly that a finger across the fracture couldn’t suffice to keep the water in.  The old, broken pot seemed to symbolize Grandmother Chatterjee’s broken off life, as well as to contrast with the new pot required for mixing the pinda.  The muk-agni again circled the pyre three times from the right, though now in an anti-clockwise direction, pouring out the water as he went.  Then, beginning with his sons, each of us repeated this action, though only once.  As this hadn’t provided nearly enough water to quench the burning coals, the oldest son made several trips to the river, pouring out water matter-of-factly and without ceremony. Anadi then rolled a few cinders in a ball of river mud, the only remnant of Grandmother Chatterjee actually returned to Ganga devi.

With ritual bathing and clothing change and a stop for tea afterwards, it was 1am before we departed Tribeni, 3am by the time we reached the village.  There we were instructed to hug the mango tree and request its company in our aloneness. Along with the fig, the banyan and the quince, the mango is reckoned to be a Brahmin among trees, though I was later told that any fruiting tree would have sufficed.  We ‘cleansed’ our hands in the smoke of a cow-dung fire, then were offered nim leaves to chew. (Not a fruit tree, but also accounted a Brahmin among trees).  Santiram fed each of us a bit of sweetmeat and some kesari dal seeds and we remained in his courtyard singing kirtanaya until dawn. Just as dawn was breaking, we sang a special kirtan to wake Lord Krishna and his consort Radha, then went to our own well-earned rests. Over the next two weeks, Santiram in particular, would be required to undertake a series of rituals to remove pollution and assist/oblige his mother to continue her journey towards nirbanan.


An anthropologist in search of a dissertation


I’d come to Palashi Village to investigate population dynamics and their relationship to land use and labor practices; why that project failed is a long and complicated story best told elsewhere.  I reminded myself that I was also a student of the French epistemological anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who had written:

The image a society evolves of the relationship between the living and the dead is, in the final analysis, an attempt, on the level of religious thought, to conceal, embellish or justify the actual relationships which prevail among the living (Triste Tropiques, 1974, p.246).

No doubt this manner of thought had unconsciously colored my interest in the Chatterjee family’s relationship with its dead grandmother.  Could it support me all the way to a dissertation?

In the course of discussing Grandmother Chatterjee’s cremation with my informants, I had acquired contradictory statements that ghosts wanted or didn’t want to leave the world of the living behind.  Most everyone agreed that the paramount function of the cremation fire was to crack the sutures of the skull to release the atma that resided within: the jibatma, life or personal soul and the poramanatma or divine soul.  The disagreement fell between the ‘official’ view that the atma needed to be ‘let out’ and a darker one that they needed to be ‘driven out.’ Anthropology thrives on just such contradictions.

I began collecting stories of ghosts: helpful ghosts, malevolent ghosts, ‘stuck’ ghosts.  Two of the latter dwelled in fields behind the village—that of a woman who went into labor and died in childbirth while travelling in a wagon; that of a man who had been bitten by a snake.  They had died otithi ‘untimely’; anyone who had to pass their way at night spit around himself in all directions to keep the ghosts at bay.

These roads through the fields were ambiguous places, part of the agricultural system, but not themselves cultivated.  The pond-fringing bamboo groves were also equivocal, ghost-haunted spaces, highly polluted by people relieving themselves among the bamboos, but bordering the ponds where they performed holy ablutions. Ghosts also congregated in the area beside a house where the roof thatch overhangs the walls—neither quite in the house nor outside it in Bengali reckoning.  When emptying a washbasin off the veranda, one had to be careful not to splash a ghost. I’d additionally learned that the reason men squatted to urinate was to avoid accidentally wetting and angering a ghost by trapping it in bhuba, a plane eighteen inches above the surface of bhu, the world of the living. Atma ordinarily remained in bhuba approximately two weeks after death until freed/forced by offerings of prasad and the performance other post-funerary rites.

Atma could become entrapped as bhut if splattered with water polluted by passing over or through a living body, while  a dead body had to be consumed by a cremation fire it polluted  to prevent its soul from becoming trapped as a ghost. The dialectic of human bodies living and dead intersected with a fire-water dialectic uniting all beings from the amrita gods to the creatures bound by samsara to repeated births and deaths.

This fire-water dialectic began with the opposition between Shiva—so pure he could live among the ashes of the burning ghat without becoming polluted—and Vishnu, such a master of water he incarnated as a fish.  Ganga devi, the holiest of waters, poured down to earth from the Himalayas by way of the fire god’s matted hair, while the water god was paired with Agni, the incarnation of the holy fire of sacrifice.  Below these in purity and capacity for pollution—but still sacred in their own right—were the domestic hearth fire which transformed agricultural produce into food, and ‘ordinary’ terrestrial water which carried off humans’ pollution.  At the bottom of the hierarchy, polluted and polluting, were the body’s digestive and watery wastes and the fire and ash of the burning ghat.

In fact, I would come to see that this fire and water fandango governed all social relations.  Among the living, it was chiefly expressed via which castes were permitted to accept water and cooked food from which others.  Between the living and the dead, it was expressed via how water polluted by the living might entrap a bhut on its journey through the worlds with the hope of finally escaping samsara, while how the cremation fire with its capacity to pollute the living might assist/impel a bhut to undertake that journey.  The cycle of birth and rebirth united the living and the dead: the fire-water dialectic provided the code for thinking, speaking and acting with regard to this union.

During the night of Grandmother Chatterjee’s cremation, Santibabu had asked me nearly as many questions about funeral practices in my society as I’d asked him about those of Bengal. Such exchanges were typical of my Palashi experience.  It’s often said that anthropologists study a people.  In fact, what we do is to learn from and with them.

Nathaniel Wander has had a career as an ecological anthropologist and public health researcher. Since retiring from the University of Edinburgh in 2011, he turned to studying woodpeckers in Belize and began writing a personal/professional memoir titled: You Are Here—X: Tales from the Evolution of an Anthropologist. “Cowboys and Indians” will be the sixth chapter of that manuscript to be published.