In Photos: a Gorgeous Indian City That Welcomes the Dead and Dying
In 1897, writer Mark Twain called Varanasi, "older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together." Twain’s words described this city more than a century ago, but you still won’t find the India of high-tech call centers and cosmopolitan culture here today. Instead, this spiritual capital of Hinduism (which dates back to the 11th century)—a grand dame among the ancient cities in the world—is hyper focused on the act, and art, of passing on. Here, you’re literally—and very publically—surrounded by the intimate rituals of death, where sights manage to be both heart-achingly beautiful and somewhat apocalyptic.
From its perch on the western bank of the Ganges, Varanasi’s riverfront ghats (stairs that lead directly to the water) offer pilgrims direct access to the river’s cleansing powers. The city’s colorful facades feature countless temples, many of which are dedicated to the Hindu god, Lord Shiva. Perhaps because it’s one of the few places that will force you, willingly or not, to contemplate life, you should definitely visit Varanasi while you’re still very much alive.
It's good to have a death wish.
Yes, it’s true: People come to Varanasi with the intention of dying. In this city, having a death wish is a positive. Devout Hindus believe that cremation in holy Varanasi allows them to achieve moksha—liberation from reincarnation. Rather than enduring rebirth, if you expire in Varanasi you’ll go directly to nirvana. And the road to enlightenment leads from the steep, colorful ghats where the very public riverside funeral pyres for this ritual are located.
The theater of death surrounds you.
In the Western world, death is often a private, solemn, quiet affair: in Varanasi, the opposite couldn’t be more true. Bodies are paraded through the streets down to the Ganges with chanting and fanfare, corpses burn at riverside ghat cremation sites around the clock, and there’s even an audience platform at Harishchandra ghat, giving onlookers a good view of the flames. But one of the best ways to take it all in respectfully—and to satisfy any morbid curiosity—is from a boat on the Ganges. Just row toward the smoke, drift, and watch.
Death is simply business in Varanasi.
For example, there are hotels such as Kashi Labh Mukti Bhavan that only accept occupants expected to die within 15 days. Yes, that means it literally offers death beds. Witnessing so many dead or close-to-dying people—often curled up asleep on the streets like this woman—may seem like a taboo to a Westerner, but this sort of out-of-the-ordinary experience is exactly why travel is important: to participate in a life we couldn’t have before imagined.
Ganges River: Center of life and death.
It’s shocking at first, but in the very water where the ashes and the corpses considered too impure to be burned are dumped, you’ll see women bathing or young boys rinsing their mouths, fountaining the water from their lips. And yes, the Ganges River is polluted, so much so that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has committed to a new plan of cleaning it by October 2019, the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. But bathing in the Ganges, no matter how filthy the water, is considered an act of purification.
Magic at Dashashwamedh Ghat.
There is more to Varanasi than its close relationship with death, though arguably nothing as compelling. But that’s with the possible exception of the Ganga Aarti, a daily public worship and impressively choreographed ceremony at dusk where a fire-filled dedication is made to Lord Shiva and the River Ganga. Under colored light, priests spin smoky brass lamps, chant, and sing.
A nightly ceremony.
Thousands watch the nightly ceremony by boat, while others fill every platform of the ghat, , or crowd onto balconies and rooftops overlooking the 7-platform riverside stage. At the end of the ceremony, the priests walk to the river’s edge and pour water into the river, mere feet from the anchored boats, while chanting the final ritual prayers.
A small, flickering candle surrounded by flowers, the hundreds of lit diyas look magical drifting down the Ganges in a nightly parade.
What’s alive and kicking?
Cows. The labyrinthine alleyways leading to and away from Varanasi’s ghats are sure to be filled with bovines lumbering along with the rest of the crowds. Watch your step—underfoot, a mixture of excrement, trash, food, and other rubbish you won’t want to examine closer is practically unavoidable.
You won't find kitschy souvenirs here.
It’s just not that kind of place, as after all, the great ghats, the burnings, the spirituality, the holy Ganges—those are the heartstrings of Varanasi. But elbow through the crowds filling the maze-like, dank passageways and you will find sights like this one packed in among the yoga studios and meditation retreats: storekeepers lounging on and among their treasures in teeny, boxy stalls, calling to you as you flash past.
Live for the lassi.
Served in a disposable terra cotta pot, famous Blue Lassi in the Old City (near Meer Ghat) serves up artful yogurt in exotic flavors such as saffron and pistachio. Sit for a spell and you’ll most definitely see a body or two shouldered past to the burning ghat down the street. Those aware offer nods or prayers as the shrouded figures pass.
Don't leave without trying the local tea.
This city of temples is also known for it’s tea, or chai, kiosks. After every vendor you speak with offers you a glass (literally, they pour hundreds of them daily) you’ll need to take home some masala simply to bring the city experience back to life.
Nothing is kept behind closed doors.
This is one of the most indiscreet places in the world. And even though death is on Varanasi’s center stage, life boils here. You may see teenagers snapping selfies with a dead relative burning upon a pile of sandalwood, chanting women washing their clothing at the bottom of a crowded ghat, or gangs of men shouting and slapping at cows to nudge them along as they shoulder a shroud-wrapped body on a bamboo litter, bumping you abruptly out of their way as they pass. The kaleidoscope of colors, sounds, and scenes will overwhelm you—and will stay with you, too.
‘Death in Kashi is death known and faced’
In her book Banares: City of Light, scholar Diana Eck writes, “ Death in Kashi (a common name for Varanasi) is not a feared death, for here the ordinary God of Death, frightful Yama, has no jurisdiction. Death in Kashi is death known and faced, transformed and transcended.” People, even those literally awaiting their own deaths, seem happy in Varanasi. Especially if you’re coming from a Western culture that, famously, denies and distances itself from death, the city takes that gap and bulldozes you with it. And once you lift your head up again, you realize that death, in the context of the whole cycle of life that Varanasi represents, isn’t something to fear after all.