The ‘Burning Ghats’ of Varanasi in India

The following is a diary excerpt from one of our more seasoned travelers documenting some of his experiences at the infamous ‘burning ghats’ of Varanasi in India.

Tue March 1st

A day of experiences to say the least. I was pretty wrecked getting into Varanasi from the train, only to find my hotel is a complete kip! I wasn’t expecting a palace (even tho according to lonely planet it actually used to be one) but it was fairly shoddy. Fed up and a bit worn out I headed for the ghats by rickshaw. As soon as I disbanded the rick to walk the rest of the way, a man started talking to me- he was telling me how to get to the burning ghats (Varanasi is known for its somewhat shocking sites – none more so than the burning ghats, where the deceased are cremated in public on the banks of the sacred river Ganges). The man continued to walk with me and guided me through the narrow streets. He was small and wiry, probably late twenties, and introduced himself as Lebru.

As we continued to walk he explained to me the process of preparing a body for the cremation- he himself had cremated his father at the ghats. The body must first be washed and then covered in butter and various other ailments. The eldest son of the dead person must prepare the pyre, and must shave his head bald in preparation (we saw this taking place on a young boy close to the ghats). The son is also responsible for the finances, and cremation can be expensive. The amount of wood used is weighed to the exact kilo and calculated precisely how much will be needed to completely incinerate the body (burning takes about three hours). Sandalwood is the most expensive while wood from banana trees is the cheapest and most common. He assured me it is fine for male tourists to watch the burning, but women – and cameras – are strictly forbidden.

We walked through the narrow streets passing lepers, cripples and other forsaken pilgrims who come to Varanasi seeking salvation. A group of women with bald heads filed passed us. Lebru explained that these women are infertile, and they believe that a pilgrimage to Varanasi can increase their chances of having a child.

All this time my guides’ younger brother kept walking at around three paces behind us, never taking part in the conversation. I was becoming nervous, the streets were so narrow now that we walked in single file, the path was dark and we hadn’t passed any other people for a couple of minutes. I was anxious to know what he expected to get from me… He was much too committed to the culture lesson just to be doing it from the good of his heart. Whilst he talked fluidly I looked at his body language, he definitely wasn’t on edge or anticipating anything, so i was fairly sure at least he and his brother weren’t planning to rob me!

At this point the man casually dropped in that he and his wife design and make silk textiles in their small shop which is close by, and would i like to see it and buy something after the ghats? I was relieved to learn of his albeit harmless agenda… and at this stage he had grown on me so i told him that after the ghats i would come to his shop. His English was perfect, and there was something i really liked about the way he phrased things – he was very philosophical, and had me glued to every word.

As we approached the last bend in a narrow tunnel-like street, he stopped walking and grabbed my arm. Looking straight at me he said “what you will see next will shock you but you must not scream or be sad or cry. Too much emotion around the pyre can distract Shiva from taking the soul of the dead to heaven”… Oh Fuck.

My heart pounding, we came around the corner to look on to one of the most surreal things I’ve ever laid eyes on. With the broad river Ganges as a back drop, the concrete ghats were lined with about ten to fifteen bonfires- three feet high neatly stacked heaps of wood, and each with a fairly noticeable corpse plomped on top. On the one closest to us, I could clearly see the two feet of a man poking out of the end of the fire, and in the immense heat of the flames a mixture of brown skin and pink flesh dripped from his legs like hot oil, the rest of his body had at this stage been burnt down to the skeleton.

Such is the demand, bodies are burned 24 hours a day and several more corpses lay on stretchers wrapped in brightly colored silks, waiting for their firey vessels to the afterlife. Lebru pointed to one particular body adorned with silk and silver bands saying it was the body of a holy man, who will be set adrift in the Ganges without cremation- there is no need as his soul is already pure. The same applies for children and pregnant women. He pulled me by the arm down closer to the pyres, and led me directly across a group of men who were seated watching a cremation, I caught a glimpse of a skull with the last remnants of skin bubbling on its’ surface. We weaved in and out through the various pyres. The heat was unbearable. He turned to me at one stage and said “if you burn a hair on your hand you can smell right? you see here, no smell. This is the divine power of Shiva”. And he was right. Save for the smell of burning wood, for whatever reason there was no smell of human flesh; despite there being twenty or so charred corpses in the vicinity.

Next he took me back up the ghats in the direction we came and pointed to a series of small wood fires burning in stone pots. He explained that no natural fire or fuel was used to ignite each pyre, but sacred fire; this is a flame that was ignited by Shiva 4000 years ago. He claimed that the small fires we were looking at are kept alight at all times (and have been for 4000 years). If it rains they are moved inside but must always be kept alight. For only if the pyre is ignited by the fire of Shiva will the soul of the dead person be cleansed of its sins and go to heaven.

Mind-blowing as it all was, I’d had enough of the morbidity and suggested we go to his silk shop. He deserved my custom after that.On the way back through the streets he said to me “in life you can have nice camera, car, phone…. or you can be a poor man. But in death, we are all equal- we leave all things and we go in the same direction with nothing only our souls.” To which he humbly added- “everything you saw today, this is what i believe. I could be wrong. No one knows. But its what I believe, and how my parents taught me. My father was cremated here, and when it is my time- I will be also”.

In some ways this experience encapsulated India for me- a bustling conveyor belt of life and activity, with charm, history and depth- and without doubt is one of the most unapologetically indiscreet places on the planet!