Varanasi, India – holy city and crematorium for Hindus

Varanasi: the Indian capital of death

Upon hearing that I was going to Varanasi, some of my acquaintances sighed enviously, “Oh, Varanasi, I wish I could go back there!” It was strange for me to hear that, because these people are not poor: expensive cars, better hotels, and restaurants. What could they possibly like about Varanasi? After all, it is a city of death and unsanitary conditions! Here the corpses float on the Ganges, here the dead are burned on bonfires, there are narrow streets where the sidewalks never see the light, the houses are covered with centuries-old mold and bends – what normal person would come here?

Even I, having been to some of the worst cities in the world, was wary of Varanasi! I am writing this post now, flying up to Delhi. I spent almost three days in Varanasi, and I can say that it is one of the most amazing cities in the world that I will definitely return to! It’s hard not to fall in love with Varanasi if you come here with the right attitude.

Varanasi is the capital of death: every day thousands of sick, old, and infirm people flock here from all over India to die on the banks of the Ganges and escape the wheel of Sansara. Hindus believe that those who die in this sacred city exit the cycle of karmic rebirths and go straight to heaven. It is here that for several thousand years the bonfires on the Ganges embankment have been continuously burning on which corpses are burned. This is where life and death are so close to each other that you are no longer surprised by corpses floating in the river or people bathing in the same river.

But death here is not repulsive or squeamish. Over three days I saw several dozen dead people: some floating in the river, some rotting on the sandy shore, some being carried by relatives on the roof of a minibus, some burning to death on a fire. And this death is in no way shocking; it is part of this city and its amazing culture.

Varanasi is mysterious and amazingly beautiful. I don’t remember seeing a more beautiful promenade anywhere. For nearly seven kilometers along the western bank of the Ganges, the promenade descends to the water with numerous stairways, terraces, piers, passageways, arches and galleries. The steep cliffs of palaces, temples and hotels overhang the sacred Ganges. The picture is so unusual, as if you were transported to the Middle Ages.

01. the image of the embankment does not change over the centuries. Somewhere, of course, new hotels or apartment buildings are completed, but they are almost invisible among the palaces and temples.

02. The water level of the Ganges is not constant: in the summer the river floods, so the embankment here are ledges, so that almost at any time there was access to water. But at the end of summer, even these steps are not enough, and the embankment disappears under the water.

The waterfront is not accessible to cars or the ubiquitous mopeds, only to boats. This makes Varanasi look like Venice in some places.

There are 84 ghats (stepped descents to the water) in Varanasi, but only two are used to burn the dead. On the others, normal daily life goes on: people do their laundry, bathe, brush their teeth and drink from the river. Hindus revere the Ganges as the embodiment of holiness and purity, so no one has any concerns about the quality of the river’s water. And the fact that half-burned human remains are dumped into the same water a few tens of meters away does not seem to frighten anyone.

This is the most famous ghat of Varanasi, the Manikarnika. It has a cult status: according to the legend, the funeral pyres have been burning here continuously for two and a half thousand years. And the fire, from which to this day are blazing fires, the people gave himself Shiva. It still burns in the temple, located not far from the ghat.

05. Wood is piled everywhere.

06. Cremation on the banks of the Ganges is sacred to Hindus, so many believers are willing to save money for the ritual throughout their lives. It costs a lot by local standards, about $500. The most expensive component is firewood, about 300-400 kilograms of it is needed. Sandalwood is also added to the fires. If there is no money, you can add a small twig. The rich allow themselves to add large logs of sandalwood to the fires, and a special chic is a full sandalwood fire, which can cost several thousand dollars. The problem is that it is illegal to cut down sandalwood trees in India. Poor people often have to beg on the streets to get the cheapest set of firewood.

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07. According to Hindu customs, a dead person must be cremated within 24 hours. The body is rubbed with incense, wrapped in expensive cloths, placed on a stretcher, decorated with flowers and jewels, and carried to the banks of the Ganges. On the way people chant the mantra “Ram nam sagahe,” a request to grant the deceased moksha, liberation from the wheel of samsara. Such funeral processions in the streets of Varanasi are commonplace. Sometimes the corpses are brought in by boat. Someone stole a lifeboat from a ship and now they’ve converted it into a corpse carriage.

08. According to the funeral mafia, about 300 corpses are burned here every day. Cremations usually last about five hours.

09. To be honest, I don’t really understand how 300 corpses a day can be burned here. I counted about 30 fires in total. That is, even in ideal conditions, 150 corpses can be burned in a day. But there was no special queue, and not all the bonfires were burning. At the same time, the workers bragged that some of them burned even 1000 corpses!

10. Relatives take part in the ceremony. You have to shave off all the hair from your face before you start.

11. The corpse is richly decorated and waits for its bonfire.

12. it is dipped in the Ganges and then carried to the bonfire.

13. Here you can see the corpse being stacked. It is almost invisible among the wood, and when the fire is lit, you can’t see anything at all. The fire is lit by the eldest relative (husband, father, brother, etc.) Before this he goes around the fire five times.

14. Bonfires. The funeral mafia has a double business. On the one hand, you have to take dough from relatives for cremation. It costs about $400 to $500. But with the ritual everything is clear. The second business is taking money from tourists, or, more precisely, selling photo permits.

That’s much more interesting. On the Internet there are a lot of horror stories about the terrible local customs. Someone writes that the fee for a single shutter release is close to $ 100, someone tells how he almost got beaten by the crowd when trying to take a photo. Things may change here from time to time, but I’ll tell you how things are today.

15. Actually, the only two places in town that are guarded from lenses are the two places where they burn corpses. You can hardly shoot inconspicuously. You have to understand that for the locals you are like prey for a hunter. You may be caught right away, or you may be lured closer and “allowed” to take a picture. Then, in fact, the scam will begin.

Although there is no official ban on filming, you just walk down the street, but the locals have a legend that the police prohibit filming here, so you immediately surrounded the crowd and will extort money, threatening to give the cops. About the cops, I think, bluff, and if you behave confidently, remove the frame, you can calmly leave. But the locals aren’t interested in you just walking away, they need your money, so you’ll be offered to take pictures!

16. I’ll tell you right away that I haggled a long time and negotiated on royal terms! I was allowed to walk around for 30 minutes and shoot whatever I wanted, with any technique, with no restrictions. At first they were asking for 20,000 rupees (about 1:1 exchange rate against the ruble), I ended up bringing it down to 6000. Judging from the experience of other photographers, it was a very good deal. Here it is important that you immediately understand what you want to shoot and how much you’re willing to pay for it. If you only need a few shots on your phone, then 500-1000 rupees is enough.

17. After the deal is done, you immediately get on the “white list” – the whole crowd that was greedily looking at your cameras stops paying attention to you, and you’re free to walk around and take pictures. I think I read that someone was getting almost an official permit from City Hall and the police, but I didn’t have time for the bureaucracy, so how relevant it is today, I don’t know.

18. There is also a way to take pictures for free – from the water. Although a few years ago the local mafia tried to prevent filming from the water, today the flow of boats with tourists is such that it is impossible to control it. After all, in addition to the cremation mafia is a mafia of boaters who also want to eat.

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19. For 800 rupees you can rent a motorboat that will take you along the river front of Varanasi and take you directly to the cremation site. The boats come pretty close to the shore, so the picture is good.

20. I guess I have to disappoint dead body lovers right away. There is no tin at the cremation. Initially the corpse is wrapped in a cloth, so you can’t see the body. When the body is placed on the fire, it is covered with wood, and you can’t see anything in the fire either. At most, the deceased’s leg may stick out of the fire, but it will quickly be pushed deeper into the fire with a stick. This is to say that impressionable, children and pregnant women have nothing to worry about, you can easily go and look, there is no tininess.

21. Whatever is left of the corpse is thrown into the Ganges. Not much is left: some chest from the men, and some pelvic bones from the women. To be honest, I don’t really understand why this is the division. Why do men’s pelvic bones burn and women’s do not? But there may also be jewelry in the ashes that relatives forgot to remove from the deceased, so special people literally wash gold from the ashes in the Ganges.

Varanasi in India – City of Funeral Fires

Varanasi, India is one of the most mysterious and controversial cities in the country, where many Indians come to die. However, this tradition is not due to the incredibly beautiful nature or good medicine – Hindus believe that the river Ganges will relieve them from earthly suffering.

Varanasi in India

General Information

Varanasi is one of the largest cities in northeastern India and is known as the center of Brahmanic learning. Buddhists, Hindus, and Jainists consider it a holy place. It means as much to them as Rome to Catholics and Mecca to Muslims.

Varanasi covers an area of 1,550 square kilometers and has a population of just under 1.5 million people. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, and probably the oldest in India. The city takes its name from two rivers, the Varuna and Assi, which join the Ganges. Varanasi is also occasionally referred to as Avimuktaka, Brahma Vardha, Sudarshan, and Ramya.

Interestingly, Varanasi is one of the most important educational centers of India. For example, the only university in the country that teaches in the Tibetan language is located here. It is the Central University of Tibetan Studies, founded under Jawaharlal Nehru.

Waterfront in Varanasi

The nearest major cities to Varanasi are Kanpur (370 km), Patna (300 km), Lucknow (290 km). The distance to Calcutta is 670 km, and to New Delhi 820 km. Interestingly, Varanasi is located almost on the border (by Indian standards). It is 410 km to the border with Nepal, 750 km to Bangladesh and 910 km to the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Historical Info

Since Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, its history is very colorful and complicated. According to an ancient legend, the god Shiva founded a settlement on the place of the modern city making it one of the religious centers of Eurasia.

The first accurate information about the settlement dates back to 3000 BC. – It is mentioned in several Hindu scriptures as an industrial center. Historians say that silk, cotton, and muslin were grown and processed here. Perfumes and sculptures were also made here. In the first millennium BC, Varanasi was visited by several travelers who wrote about the city as the “religious, scientific and artistic center” of the Indian subcontinent.

In the first third of the 18th century Varanasi became the capital of the Kashi kingdom, making the city develop much more rapidly than neighboring settlements. For example, one of the first forts in India and a number of palaces and park complexes were built here.

The year 1857 is considered tragic for Varanasi – the Sipai revolt, and the British, wishing to stop the crowd, slaughtered many local residents. As a result, a large part of the city’s population died.

Red Temple in Varanasi

In the late XIX century the city has become a place of pilgrimage of hundreds of thousands of believers – coming here from all over Asia to take part in local celebrations and visit the temples. Many rich people come to Varanasi to die in the “holy land. This results in bonfires burning day and night near the Ganges, in which dozens of corpses are burned (this is the tradition).

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In the 20th and early 21st centuries, the city is also an important religious center, attracting believers from all over the country and scholars who want to better study the phenomenon of this place.

Religious Life

Temple in Varanasi

In Hinduism, Varanasi is considered one of the main places of veneration of Shiva, because according to legend, it was he who created the city in 5000 BC. It is also one of the top seven major cities for Buddhists and Jainists. However, Varanasi can safely be called a city of four religions, because many Muslims live here.

Among Hindus, pilgrimage to Varanasi is so popular because the city stands on the banks of the Ganges, the river that is sacred to them. From early childhood every Hindu seeks to come here to perform the rite of ablution and at the end of life to be burned here. For the Hindu, death is only one of the stages of rebirth.

Because the number of pilgrims who come here to die is boundless, there are funeral fires burning day and night in the city of Varanasi.

Open-air crematorium

Not everyone can die “properly” in Varanasi – you have to pay a tidy sum to be burned and allowed to go down the Ganges, and many believers spend years collecting money for the journey to the other world.

There are 84 ghats in the city – a kind of crematorium, in which 200 to 400 bodies are burned in a day. Some of them are abandoned, and in others for many decades the fire burns. The most famous and ancient is Manikarnika Ghat, where for several thousand years Hindus have been helped to reach the state of moksha. The procedure is as follows:

Funeral pyres

  1. Firewood is stacked evenly on the bank of the Ganges (it is brought from the opposite bank of the river, and the prices are very high).
  2. They make a fire and put there the body of a dead person. It must be done no later than 6-7 hours after death. Usually the body is wrapped in a white cloth, and traditional decorations for the caste to which the person belongs are put on.
  3. After only ashes are left of the person, they are dumped into the Ganges. Many corpses are not burned completely (if old wood was used), and their bodies float down the river, which, however, does not embarrass the locals.

As for the cost, 1 kg of wood for the fire costs $ 1. To burn a corpse requires 400 kg, therefore, the family of the deceased pays around 400 dollars, which is a huge amount for the inhabitants of India. Wealthy Hindus often make a bonfire with sandalwood – 1 kg costs $160.

The most expensive “funeral” was at the local maharaja – his son bought sandalwood wood, and during the burning he threw topaz and sapphires over the fire, which later went to the crematorium workers.

As the scavengers of the corpses, people belonging to the lower class acted. They clean the area of the crematorium and pass the ashes through a sieve. It may seem strange, but their main task is not cleaning – they must find the precious stones and jewelry that the relatives of the deceased cannot remove from the dead themselves. After all the valuable items are put up for sale.

Crematorium workers with a corpse

It is important for tourists to know that you can not photograph the bonfires for free – you will immediately run up to the “believers” and say that this is a sacred place. However, if you pay money, you can do it without problems. The only question is the price. For example, crematorium workers always ask who you are, what your job is, etc. This will determine the price they ask.

To save money, it is better to introduce yourself as a student – for a week of shooting you will need to pay about $ 200. After payment you’ll get a piece of paper which you’ll have to show if necessary. The highest prices are set for journalists – one filming day can cost more than 2000 dollars.

In Hinduism, as in Christianity, it is customary to bury suicides and people who have died of their own accord separately. In Varanasi there is even a special crematorium for those who have passed away of their own free will.

In addition to the “elite” crematoriums, there is also an electric crematorium where those who have not had time to save enough money are burned. It is also not uncommon for the remains of wood from fires that have already burned out to be collected all along the coast for a person from a poor family. The corpses of such people do not burn completely, and their skeletons are lowered into the Ganges.

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For such cases there are corpse scavengers. They float a boat down the river and collect the bodies of those who have not been burned. These can be children (no burning before the age of 13), pregnant women, and leprosy patients.

A burnt body

Interestingly, people who have been bitten by a cobra are not burned either – the locals believe that they do not die, but are only temporarily in a state of coma. Such bodies are placed in large wooden boats and sent to “meditate”. People attach signs to their corpses with their residence address and name, because when they wake up, they may forget about their past lives.

All of the above traditions are quite specific, and a number of Indian politicians agree that it is time to stop such rituals. It’s hard to believe, but only 50 years ago India officially banned the burning of widows – earlier in the fire with a deceased husband had to lie down and his wife, who burned alive.

However, both locals and tourists have great doubts about the fact that such rituals will be abolished – neither the arrival of Muslims, nor the arrival of the British on the peninsula has not been able to change the millennia-old tradition.

What does the city look like outside the “crematorium zone”?

The opposite bank of the Ganges is an ordinary village where ordinary Indians live. In the waters of the sacred river they wash clothes, cook food, and are very fond of bathing (tourists, of course, should not do so). Their whole life is connected with water.

Varanasi Slums

The modern part of the city of Varanasi in India is an abundance of narrow streets (they are called galis) and colorful houses. There are many bazaars and stores in the sleeping areas. Amazingly, unlike Mumbai or Calcutta, there aren’t as many slums and filth here. The population density here is also less.

One of the most popular places in Varanasi associated with Buddhism is Sarnath. It is a huge tree, on the site of which, according to legend, the Buddha preached.

Interestingly, almost all the neighborhoods and streets of Varanasi are named either after famous religious figures or according to the communities that live there.

Varanasi is the city of temples, so here you will find dozens of Hindu, Muslim, and Jainist shrines. Worth a visit:

  1. Kashi Vishwanath or Golden Temple. It was built in honor of the god Shiva, and is considered the most important in the city. It looks similar to the kovils in other major cities of India. It is important to note that this is the most guarded temple in India, and one cannot enter it without a passport.
  2. Annapurna Temple, dedicated to the goddess of the same name. According to legend, a person who has visited this place will always be full.
  3. Durgakund or Monkey Temple. It stands out brightly from the other sights of Varanasi in India, because it has bright red walls.
  4. Alamgir Masjid is the main mosque of the city.
  5. Dhamek Stupa – The main Buddhist shrine of the city, built on the site of the Buddha’s sermon.

Varanasi has a fairly large selection of accommodation – about 400 hotels, hostels, and hostels in total. In fact, the city is divided into 4 main districts:

Ghali in Varanasi

  1. The area near the crematoriums overlooking the Ganges River. Strangely enough, it is this part of the city that is most in demand among tourists. From here there is a beautiful view of the river, but, for obvious reasons, is very specific smell, and if you look down, the picture from the windows is not the brightest. The prices here are the highest, and unless you want to spend the day and night watching people go to the other world, it is better not to stay here.
  2. The “rural” part of the city is on the opposite bank of the Ganges. There are literally a few hotels here, but many tourists warn that this part of Varanasi can be potentially dangerous for tourists – not all locals treat foreigners well.
  3. Gali or the area of narrow streets is the most suitable place for those who want to take in the atmosphere of the city, but do not want to watch the cadaver fires. Most of the sights are located close by, which makes this area the most attractive for tourists. The disadvantages are the sheer number of people and the large number of dark back alleys.
  4. The modern part of Varanasi is the safest. The most expensive hotels are located here, and there are large office centers nearby. The prices are above average.
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A 3* hotel for a night for two in the high will cost $30-50. It is important to note that the rooms in most hotels are decent, and there is everything you need for a comfortable stay: spacious rooms, air conditioning, private bathroom and all necessary appliances in the room. There are also cafes near most hotels.

As for the gesthouses, the prices are much lower. So, a night for two in the high season will cost $ 21-28 dollars. Typically, the rooms here are smaller than the hotels. There is also no separate bathroom and kitchen.

Hotel in Varanasi

Keep in mind that Varanasi is a very popular destination, and hotel rooms should be booked 2-3 months in advance.

How to get from Delhi

Delhi and Varanasi are separated by 820 km, which can be traveled by the following modes of transportation.

This is the most comfortable option, and many tourists are advised to give preference to it, because in the Indian heat not everyone can go 10-11 hours in an ordinary bus or train.

You need to take the subway and get to the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Then take a plane to Varanasi. The travel time will be 1 hour and 20 minutes. The average ticket price is 28-32 euros (depending on season and flight time).

Air India

There are a few airlines on this route: IndiGo, SpiceJet, Air India, and Vistara. The prices for these tickets are about the same, so it makes sense to check the official websites of all airlines.

You need to take train number 12562 at New Delhi station, and get to the Varanasi Jn stop. The travel time will be 12 hours and the cost is only 5-6 euros. Trains run 2-3 times a day.

However, you should keep in mind that it is quite difficult to buy a train ticket, because they are sold out by locals as soon as they appear in the ticket office. You can not make a purchase online. You should also be aware that trains are often very late or do not come at all, so it’s not the most reliable mode of transportation for tourists.

You need to board at the bus station in New Delhi and go to Lucknow station (RedBus). There you will change to a bus to Varanasi and get off at the Varanasi stop (operated by UPSRTC). Travel time is 10 hours + 7 hours. The cost is about 20 euros for two tickets. Buses run twice a day.


Book a ticket and follow changes to the schedule on the official website of RedBus:

All prices on the page are for November 2019.

Interesting Facts

Benares Silk

  1. Hindus believe that if they die in the holy city of Varanasi, they will reach a state of moksha – the higher powers will relieve them of their suffering and free them from the endless cycle of life and death.
  2. If you want to take beautiful pictures of Varanasi, go to the promenade at 5 or 6 in the morning – at this time of day the smoke from the fires is not so strong, and the light haze on the background of the rising sun looks incredibly beautiful.
  3. Varanasi is known as the birthplace of “Benares silk,” one of the most expensive fabrics to be found only in India. It is usually used to make saris, which can cost hundreds of dollars.
  4. Varanasi has a humid subtropical climate, and at any time of year it is hot. The most suitable months to visit the city is December and February. During this time the temperature does not rise above 21-22 ° C.
  5. Come to die in Varanasi not only Hindus – frequent visitors are Americans and Europeans.
  6. Varanasi is the birthplace of Patanjali, the man who developed Indian grammar and created Ayurveda.

Varanasi, India is one of the most unusual cities in the world, the likes of which can hardly be found anywhere else.

The business of burning corpses in Varanasi:

Author: Maria Protasenya

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