The fascinating workings of the main Varanasi burning ghat

It was in the midst of the second Covid-wave when the world got introduced to mass cremation sites within India. It must have been somewhere in May 2021, when more than a dozen international reporters all gathered in front of a large site in Delhi. Dead corpses were everywhere, and the local priest was conducting interviews to journalists from across the globe.

It was heart-breaking. But it was not a factional portray of the general state of the pandemic within India.

Let me explain. I’ve never seen such a thing in my city, Pune. In fact, I’ve not seen it in any city in India. Never, not during the pandemic and not even before the pandemic.

However, I’ve seen it in Varanasi. But that is a completely different story.

At the end of the second wave, things started to reopen in India. With the temptation to start travelling again, I listed down some of the cities I still wanted to see in this immense country. Whist I still have an endless list of cities and sites in India that I would love to visit, during that time there was this one city on the top of my list: Varanasi.

After 5 years of living and working in India, I’d never travelled to the holiest city of the Indian subcontinent, until now.

After a one-night stopover at one of my favourite cities in India – Bangalore – I travelled all the way up to Varanasi.

And it was a blast.

Yes, Varanasi could be seen as one of the dirtiest, poorest, and busiest cities within India; It tickled all my senses, but not always with a positive experience. While all of this could be felt  as a bit overwhelming, I strongly advise everyone to put this city on their India-bucket list!

Let me explain further.

It’s the stunning architecture, numerous sadhus’ and the mysterious ghats which make this city so special. Walking around here feels as if you’re walking around in an open-air 3D museum.

But the icing on the cake is everything which one could find here in relation to India’s main religion, Hinduism. During my short visit, I’d seen a couple of ancient old temples and lots of mysterious gatherings, celebrations and other outings of religion.

Walking through the labyrinth of small streets alongside the River Ganges almost felt as a spiritual journey to me. It was the combination of monkeys, cows and a wide variety of micro shops selling everything from incense sticks to cooking appliances, which made this all very special to me.

One morning, I walked towards the famous Manikarnika Ghat. This is the place where mourners cremate their loved ones. It’s the largest and most ‘popular’ cremation site in Varanasi.

With almost close to zero international travellers in the city, I felt a bit reluctant while walking through the small alleys towards the River Ganges. However, it gave me a good feeling.

The water was high when I finally reached the ghat. In fact, it was extremely high. Based upon my personal assessment, the water was at least one or two stories higher than before the monsoon. This means it was at least 6-8 meters higher than normal.

As a result, it was not possible to reach the burning ghat by foot. Instead, boats were all lined up and ready to ferry the dead and their families to the actual cremation site.

One of the waiting boatsmen offered me a return ride to the ghat for 300 INR, a little more than 3 euros.

After arriving at the ghat itself, I met a friendly guy who started talking about the operation of the cremation site. He seemed nice and I still think he was not a guide. Moreover: his information was compelling. And he ensured me that it was ok for me to start walking around the site.

I immediately did.

People who want to cremate their loved ones had to buy their wood on or around the site itself. When I was there, I saw two options: mango wood for 150 INR (1.75 euro’s) per KG or – if you wanted to go for the splurge – sandalwood for 8000 INR (95,- euro’s) per KG.

After buying the word, the family, with only men allowed on the cremation site, would then be assigned to one of the 10 fireplaces there. This all happens while the dead corpse is laying on the ground, on a bed of bamboo sticks and mostly covered with cloth. And it’s the cloth or sari that can tell you the gender, age and place on the sociodemographic ladder of the deceased.

I was told that it takes up to 3 hours to burn a body. I was told, in most cases only ashes remain. However, while walking on the cremation site itself, I found various bones….And the friendly guy who explained everything about the operations told me something shocking: left over body parts would be thrown away into the river. Yeah, why not.

Next to the cremation site was the main wood supplier. And they were not only selling wood. No, they were also supplying fire. There’s an indefinite fire burning as it an 24/7 operation.

The entire visit only took about an hour, but I will never forget it. Furthermore: I’m still thinking about what all had transpired. Like the entire city of Varanasi, it was very impressive.

What would one think of the numerous people who were inspecting the remaining ashes in the water. Where they hoping to find some remains of jewellery? Or the numerous rules about who should be cremated or not? People who passed away due to specific illnesses are not allowed to be cremated here. One should think about things like lepra or a cobra bite.

Same with woman who are pregnant at the time of passing. And same goes for sadhu’s.

Another thing that struck me was the ongoing arrival of new bodies. During my walk on the main street, I saw people who were carrying a corpse almost every 10 minutes.

I can totally imagine that most people would pass up a visit to this cremation site. But you can skip it. For me, it was the icing on the cake and one you should definitely visit Varanasi. There’s so much more to explore.

3 thoughts on “The fascinating workings of the main Varanasi burning ghat

  1. Nicely described
    However what is the meaning of all this ?
    Why would the remains be thrown into the river
    Why should you be cremated and not buried ?
    And why in Manikarnika ghat only and why is there such a rush from people …?

    Did these questions arise in you ? And if so what answers did you find for them

    Would be interested to know …

    Like

  2. To add:

    Most cremations are done by the Doms a subcaste among Dalits. Burning the body is a religious duty but also polluting so that’s why many Dalits are involved. It’s also good business depending on the number of cremations Dom families are allowed to perform. Some of them have because of their good earnings, beautiful houses at the banks of the Ganges. Varanasi is so popular with cremations because it’s a holy city and a so called tirhta: a cremation in Varanasi can give you a shortcut to Nirvana.

    Groet,
    Bert

    Like

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