One of India’s holiest cities for Hindus is also one of its most powerful even for the least religiously-inclined visitor. Situated along the banks of the River Ganges, Varanasi is the single best place for Hindu death rites to be performed in order for souls to be released into the care of Shiva’s heaven, without being born back into the cycle of life and death. The ceremony involves ritual cremation on the ghats (stone staircases) that lead down into the Ganges, and is an intense thing to witness.
Visitors to Varanasi are often struck by how casual and public these rituals are. Most foreigners choose to stay in the Old City, or further downstream at Assi Ghat. Both locations are right on the river, and walking up and down the stone pathway is a common pastime. At several locations, pyres are built and families, aided by Brahmins (priests), openly dispose of their loved ones. On the adjacent steps of the ghat, children play, women do their laundry (yes, in the same water), and yoga classes take place. I’ve even seen an old man standing in the water and brushing his teeth with it. The ceremony itself is an ancient one that has not changed significantly, and calls for special wood (assuming the family can afford it) and incense, flowers, and tikka powder. It is estimated that around 100,000 bodies are cremated in Varanasi annually, meaning that somewhere around 270 cremations take place each day. This 24 hour cycle is fascinating to watch, though those of delicate mindset or weak stomach (burning flesh does have a distinctive scent) may not find it enjoyable. A body generally takes around three hours to burn fully, unless the family buys extra wood for a larger fire.
Beyond the cremation ghats, Varanasi is famous for its holy temples and nightly pujas. A puja is a prayer ceremony performed by one or more Brahmins. In Varanasi, these elaborate affairs last for several hours with music and priests waving incense, flowers, candelabras, and fly whisks in synchronized patterns. Thousands of people watch them each night on several ghats. In the morning, before the intense heat of Uttar Pradesh can ramp up, rowboat rides along the Ganges are a popular activity. You can see brightly dressed women knee deep in water performing their morning pujas, the first cremations of the day, and the caste of Untouchables that sift through piles of ash to collect the jewelry of the deceased.
Varanasi is certainly not for everyone. But if you can handle an intense dose of spiritualism and humanity, it may end up being the highlight of your Indian adventure.