Varanasi, a maze-like city on the shore of the river Ganges, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism. It’s believed that if one is cremated in Varanasi, and their ashes are released into the sacred and purifying water of the Ganges, their reincarnation cycle will end and they will reach Nirvana.
For those living in or visiting Varanasi, an awareness of death is unavoidable. Indeed it is the main economy of the city. Every day at Manikarnika Ghat, the largest and most auspicious cremation ghat, around 100 bodies are cremated on wooden pyres along the river’s edge. The ghat (steps leading down to the holy water) operates around the clock, every day of the year. The eternal flame that feeds the fires is said to have been burning for centuries now.
Throughout the day, every day, there are funeral processions bringing loved ones to the ghats. An unfortunate fact of people wanting to die in Varanasi is that there are crowded boarding homes throughout the city full of elderly people, many of whom spend their days begging on the streets to save the money needed for funeral costs.
To some Westerners, this may sound like a grim and macabre place, but Varanasi is full of life and celebrations. To die and to be cremated in Varanasi is to have the chance to achieve Moksha (the end of the rebirth cycle), a great honor and the ultimate goal of earthly existence. The city is full of temples, religious ceremonies, burning incense, and offerings to Shiva, and strangers are welcomed to watch the cremation rituals and rejoice with the families that their loved one has entered Nirvana. Watching the sunset on a boat with the pyres burning in the foreground is to experience a different way of thinking about life and death.
Know Before You Go
While watching the cremations is welcomed, photography is strictly prohibited and if you try don't be surprised if someone aggressively stops you. It is thought that photos may interrupt the soul entering Nirvana.