Learning and Burning in the Sacred City of Varanasi
It was a beautiful warm night as we walked back to our hotel along the banks of the Ganges river. We’d just seen the Ganga Aarti ceremony which is performed in Varanasi every night, on the foreshore at Dasashwamedh Ghat.
To reach our hotel we had to pass the Harishchandra cremation ghat. Compared to Manikarnika Ghat (Varanasi’s main cremation ghat that can burn almost 300 bodies a day), this one was rather small, reserved for the poor or the homeless.
As we walked by, in front of us was the funeral pyre for an old lady, ready to be lit. She lay on her back, looking up at the sky. Unusually her face was fully exposed; it was all rather confronting. Around her stray dogs wandered looking for food.
We didn’t linger. At the next ghat was a small stage holding a religious ceremony. It seemed rather family oriented, with parents and young children in attendance. The kids ran around on the steps of the ghat and chased each other happily, oblivious to the old lady on the pyre next door.
This is the scene every night in the city of Varanasi. It’s enchanting, heartening and confronting all at once.
Learning and burning
For Hindus in particular, Varanasi is a sacred city. Set in between two branches of the mighty Ganges river, it is known by the slogan “learning and burning”. It’s a place where people come to be educated and it’s a place where they come to be cremated, to try and achieve “moksha”.
Moksha is a Hindu concept where a person’s soul escapes the cycle of rebirth and goes straight to heaven. The Hindus believe that if your body is cremated at a holy place such as Varanasi and your ashes are scattered into the sacred Ganges river, that you stand a much better chance of achieving moksha.
It’s the responsibility of a Hindu’s children to make sure their body is sent to Varanasi, regardless of the distance. Often, once someone reaches 75 years of age, their children will pay for them to move to Varanasi and live in a small apartment just back from the river. That way they won’t have too far to travel to be cremated.
Once a body is cremated, the ashes are scattered in the Ganges river. Sometimes, if the person lives overseas, they will be cremated locally and their ashes flown to Varanasi to be scattered.
Several types of bodies are not cremated. For example pregnant women, lepers, holy men, young children and anyone who dies from snake bites. Instead, their bodies are placed directly into the river, weighed down with stones so that they sink. Normally within a day or two, the bodies will rise to the surface again and they often end up snagged in trees along the river banks further downstream.
Around the main tourist areas, the government now has a daily cleanup crew, so that these bodies are less likely to be discovered by tourists doing boat tours.
Cremation is Expensive
The most common type of wood used on the funeral pyres is from the Mango tree. People who can pay extra use the more expensive sandalwood.
Wood, in general, is expensive and many people cannot afford to pay for cremation or can only buy enough wood for a partial cremation. Their bodies are often put straight into the Ganges. Even if a person is fully cremated, some parts of their body will not turn to ash and those parts are also tossed into the Ganges.
The main burning ghat in Varanasi can perform almost three hundred cremations a day out in the open. Bodies are sometimes brought in by boat and carried up to the ghat.
The government has built electric and gas powered crematoriums and tried to encourage their use but most people opt for outdoor cremation on a wooden funeral pyre. Partly this is due to the cost but also because they want to burn in the open air so that their soul can escape.
Although the cremation process is certainly confronting, there is something beautiful about the simplicity and rawness of it all.
Varanasi is also home to a large university called Banaras Hindu University. It was founded in 1916 and with over thirty thousand students it is the largest residential university in Asia. Although it covers many disciplines, it was established with a particular focus on science and technology.
Varanasi is a sacred place and the Ganges is a sacred river. Therefore many Hindus will try and visit Varanasi at least once and head down to the banks of the Ganges to bathe in the morning.
Often they will take some of its holy water back with them to use in religious ceremonies. While we were at the airport getting ready to leave Varanasi, we saw a family taking a ten-litre bottle of off-coloured water with them through security. At first, we couldn’t understand why until we realised that it was probably water from the Ganges.
People also drink some of the water and when we visited the Sarnath temple, visitors were sipping small amounts of water from the Ganges mixed with milk.
Although the Ganges is considered holy, in reality, it is extremely polluted, full of effluent and industrial waste from upstream. The government has banned the use of soaps and detergents when bathing at the ghats but people regularly flout those laws. The government has also banned owners of cattle from bathing their animals in the river but again, we saw several doing just that.
Even if those laws are eventually enforced, it probably won’t make much of a difference until the sewerage and industrial issues upstream are sorted out. They cause the bulk of the pollution.
Some of the guest houses next to the ghats even do their laundry in the river and then hang the sheets up outside to dry. Hopefully, ours didn’t do that, although we saw some sheets drying right outside the exit from our hotel!
Still, despite all the pollution concerns, there is something wonderful about seeing people heading down to the river to bathe. There’s a real sense of community as families come down to the ghats together and enter the water.
What to do in Varanasi?
Varanasi is a great city to just wander around and observe daily life. Here are the things that we did that were very worthwhile doing.
Walk along the Ghats
Within five minutes of walking along the ghats, we’d seen our first dead body. Although we’d known this would be the case, we hadn’t expected it so soon. Walking along the ghats, you are bound to see this. It’s quite confronting as often the body is not fully covered and you may see the head or bare feet protruding. We also saw a dead calf floating in the river before it was towed away by a young man behind a boat.
There’s always something going on at the ghats. Whether it’s people bathing, boats being built or repaired, street dog puppies learning to climb stairs, or bodies being cremated, there is action 24/7.
Note that unlike some holy places (such as Pushkar) you don’t need to take your shoes off while walking along the ghats. That’s just as well because it’s pretty dirty.
Take a Boat Ride
Take a boat ride at sunrise and sunset. It’s a fantastic way to see the action from a distance. It’s also a lot cooler at those times and there’s a nice light for taking photos.
At sunrise, you’ll see people coming down to the ghats to bathe. Many will even brush their teeth with river water and shampoo their hair.
You’ll also see people meditating on the platforms above the river and you’ll see the ever-present funeral pyres smouldering.
A boat ride also provides the only real way to take photos of the burning ghats while still being respectful, because you are a reasonable distance away from the activities.
Walk the Streets
Walk the narrow streets behind the ghats that are filled with people and animals alike. They are full of action and there are plenty of photo opportunities. Here you can see some of the apartments being rented by the elderly who have come to Varanasi to await death. As much as it is their choice, it’s quite sad to see.
Walking around the town you have to be careful where you step. It’s extremely dirty, with excrement everywhere from cows, dogs and god knows what else! If you venture out onto the road be careful. Varanasi is only a relatively small city but it has chaotic traffic that is almost on par with Delhi.
It’s common to see dead bodies being carried through town on a stretcher, on their way to the ghats. They are usually covered with an orange cloth.
Visit the Burning Ghats
It’s acceptable to visit the cremation ghats as long as you act respectfully. This means not taking any photos or footage, and not making a commotion. Just stand back, off to one side and quietly watch what’s going on. Don’t stay for too long either, although the tremendous heat radiating off the pyres will probably limit the time you spend there anyway.
At least one body is being cremated while another is being prepared by the family members. Each body is first washed in the holy river water before being dried prior to cremation.
Usually, the eldest son or the closest male family member presides over the cremation ceremony. He wears white and his head will be shaved as a sign of respect. There are barbers who work next to the ghats that specialise in this work.
Lots of cows and street dogs hang around the cremation ghats. Many of them seem to have overcome their fear of fire in order to get up close to the piles of rubbish and scavenge for food.
You wouldn’t think that you’d have to deal with touts at such a place, but hey this is India. Be on the lookout for men who approach you and start to talk to you about what’s going on. They will expect money if you let them continue.
We had one such tout approach us. When we told him that we weren’t interested in a guide, he became quite rude and said that it was a holy place and that Cindy shouldn’t be there because she was a woman (female family members aren’t allowed to attend the funeral but non-family members such as tourists are allowed to observe). Never mind that he was trying to extract money from us at that same holy place!
Watch the Ganga Aarti on the banks of the Ganges
Seven young holy men perform the Hindu ritual called Ganga Aarti every night at the Dasashwamedh Ghat. It starts at around 7pm and lasts for roughly three-quarters of an hour.
You can watch the ceremony from the ghat itself but it will be very crowded. Another way to watch it is to take a boat ride at sunset and ask your boatsman to stop at the ghat for the duration of the ceremony.
Where to stay in Varanasi
This warm and friendly guest house has clean and very affordable rooms. We recommend you try and book a room that looks out on to the Ganges. The guest house also has a well-priced roof-top restaurant with both Indian and western dishes. Check out the latest prices here.
We stayed in this hotel during our visit to Varanasi and really liked it. The staff were very friendly and helpful. The hotel has a lovely courtyard restaurant. At night there is a band playing traditional Indian music to accompany your dinner. Check out the latest prices here.
If you’d like to go a little more upmarket then this beautifully restored heritage hotel might be for you. It has a fantastic location next to the ghats (bear in mind this means vegetarian and no alcohol) and fantastic service. You arrive at this hotel in style by water taxi! Check out the latest prices here.
Other hotels in Varanasi
Bear in mind that if you stay in any of the hotels next to the ghats you won’t be able to have meat or alcohol with your meals because of the location next to the holy river. If that bothers you, choose a hotel away from the ghats.
Use the search box below to find alternative hotels in Varanasi: