During my trip to India, I wanted to see some important cultural sites.
As weird as it is, cremations in Varanasi fascinated me, so here I am.
I am most likely the weirdest solo girl traveler out there.
But I'm also really glad I saw cremations in Varanasi because it changed my perspective on death.
The banks of the Ganges
The Hindus believe that the Ganges River in Varanasi is exceeding holy. If you are cremated along the banks, it’s believed that your soul will be able to move to the next reincarnation unhindered.
It is a part of the cycle of death and rebirth.
This makes Varanasi a morbid but spiritually important destination for Indians.
And do be honest, although it was morbid, it was a destination that made me re-examine my own beliefs and spirituality as well.
This place along the banks is such a desirable place to be cremated that people come to Varanasi to die when they know their time is short. Because of this belief, there are about 80 cremations a day out in the open in specific places along the river.
The area is open to the public and anyone is free to watch so long as you are respectful.
So I watched. It’s solemn and it’s sobering. But it is the reality of life. They don’t cover it up in India, it’s just out in the open and accepted.
It was shocking at first but after a while, it was a little comforting. They just accept it.
Cremations from a distance. It is disrespectful to take photos nearby.
"The attitude towards death is so different. It made me take a step back and think about what we do in the US and what is normal?"
The climate has to be a consideration here. Cremations in Varanasi can’t really be delayed until the entire family arrives.
It’s very hot in this area of India and preserving the body isn’t part of their tradition. So cremations need to take place soon after death, usually 5-7 hours.
The family is required to manually carry the body down to the river. Because of that, it’s not uncommon to be in a market or cafe here and look up to see a corpse wrapped in cloth on a bamboo stretcher being carried down the street by chanting relatives.
I’ve see it 3 times now.
Once at the river, the family rinses the body, pays for wood, sandalwood powder and then begins the ceremony.
The unfortunate thing is, the most expensive part is buying enough to wood to the job properly. It takes about 600 pounds of dry wood to effectively cremate and that costs about $20 US. In the past, poorer families would get by with less wood and the remaining remains were tossed into the river.
Now there are charities to help defray costs.
To performa cremations in Varanasi, the oldest son shaves his head and beard, dresses in white and performs the ceremony. This consists of walking around the corpse 5 times followed by mourners, spreading fragrant smoke and chanting.
They then light the fire and monitor the entire cremation which takes about 3 hours. It’s an important ritual for the men of India.
Women do not typically take part in the ceremony itself for two reasons. As I was explained to me, one is they cry and that is believed to hinder the soul’s journey, the second is they used to throw themselves on the fire if it was their husband that died.
This was outlawed in the 80’s.
The lowest cast has historically been the ones to do the clean-up work of the ceremonies.
Often they will have families agree that if they cannot afford the wood, they leave the jewelry of their loved one on and the cremator will sift though the ashes at the end and sell the jewelry.
Anything that’s left is a mixture of charred wood and ash. It’s sifted through by those less fortunate and the rest is swept into the river.
Watching cremations from the river.
Unfortunately, the belief it that not everyone can be cremated.
According to Hindu beliefs, children, pregnant women, people with small pox or people who died from snake must go straight into the river.
The bodies are weighted down, and thrown directly in the river.
Animals are also sacred and thrown in the river. This is evidenced by the number of dogs floating near the banks.
As you can imagine, this is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. When you add in the issue of untreated sewage and daily deposits of cremation ashes and un-cremated remains from Varanasi and ashes shipped from everywhere else in India, you can see this is a very different view that can be hard to adjust to.
It would make sense to stay as far away as possible from the river, but it’s seen as so much more than a water source.
And this is India.
Local laundry is brought to the river.
Chai cups are made from river silt. You get chai served in little clay cups then throw them on the floor when you are finished. They are made from clay from the river, used, broken, swept back into the river, and made again.
A small chai cup that came from the river and will go back to the river.
To cleanse your soul you not only need to touch the water, you need to bathe in the river. Any time of day, you can come to the banks and see people bathing.
People come from all over the world to bathe in this spot in the Ganges because they believe it cleanses their souls.
While I was unwilling to touch the water, I was touched watching people who were so intent on finding spiritual healing they were ready to immerse their entire bodies in it.
It seemed crazy.
Yet, I couldn’t help but feel for these and their conviction to bettering themselves.
Can you imagine? It was moving.
I came here because I wanted to see death from another perspective, but the truth is, it taught me to see life from a different perspective.
I was surprised at how peaceful the ceremony was. Initially, I thought it would be much more graphic and horrible but people in India seem to have a totally different view of death.
Don’t get me wrong, there is mourning and devastating heartbreak, but I think the belief that loved ones are just going to their next life is comforting.
In the western world, we fight age, hide illness and politely address death by putting makeup on corpses for viewing, which I think Indians would find strange.
Being here, it just feels like death is just such a natural part of life’s phases.
It’s accepted. It’s out in the open.
Death is just part of life in India.