Varanasi, a place to die
when death is a blessing

Varanasi is much more than an Indian city on the banks of the Ganges River. It is an almost dreamlike place, suspended between the earthly and the divine world.

Time seems to stand still in Varanasi, perhaps because of its 5000 years of history, which make it one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, or perhaps because it is a time that passes between rituals. The truth is that the energy given off by this city is so powerful, transforming, that I could not find it anywhere else in the world.

Whenever I think of Varanasi the first thing that comes to mind is its luminosity, its sunrises and sunsets on the sacred river make everything shine twice.

Once there, it feels like being in the middle of a movie with thousands of characters and the Ganges river as a setting: Buddhist monks meditating, bells calling to pray, yogis practicing their asanas, women offering their diyas [1], incenses that cloying the air, chai vendors, women threading flower necklaces, beggars.

This place can be one of the most difficult to understand among those who travel through India, even more so if they do it alone. It is the furthest from "our" reality, Varanasi is chaotic, massive, noisy, colorful, vibrant, frenetic, intense and fascinating.

Before dawn, in the boat upriver, one after another will follow images of the purifying rituals on the banks of Mother Ganga, that is what the Ganges are called, while the orange silhouette of the sun begins to glimpse with the promise of a new day. Pilgrims and sick people collecting and drinking their waters, men and children swimming, dhobis wallas [2] hanging clothes in the sun, cows looking for food on the banks.

Perhaps there is no other place in the world where both spiritual and material search feel at the same time. There are the sadhus [3], in their orange robes reciting mantras in deep recollection, while others come forward offering blessings in exchange for a few rupees. What is true and what is false in Varanasi? Everything coexists without beginning or end and without apparent dilemmas, such as life and death.From afar are visible the columns of smoke from the Manikarnika, the ghat where cremations take place, where people from all over India bring their dead, loaded boats Tourists approach a reasonable distance to witness the rites.

Others go to Varanasi to die, there are even reception places to do so such as the Kashi Labh Mukti Bhawan, better known as the Hotel Salvation that receives about 20 people every month.

When you reach the ghat of cremations, it is a moment that no Westerner will easily forget. Death appears so frank, so open, that it collides.

In Hinduism, death and life are part of a constant cycle because the soul is immortal. To reach its purest state and liberate itself, the soul must reincarnate in many lives. But for Hindu belief this liberation from samsara [4] can be achieved through the holy Ganges. According to legends, the Ganges was created by the almighty Lord Shiva by releasing it from his hair. Shiva and his wife Parvati are said to have lived in Varanasi at the beginning of time.

Cremation is for Hindus the fastest way for the soul to leave the body through the purifying fire so that it can be reborn.


When death is imminent the family begins the preparations, a priest is summoned and the person is placed on the floor, on a mat made of tientos or bamboo. Death happens with the family around or neighbors. Even if the person spends his last days in a hospital, he will be taken back home, life is not artificially prolonged. Autopsies are not performed either, they are considered very offensive, except in those cases where the law must intervene.

The priest will recite the Vedas in the ear of the dying person, so that his energy is concentrated at the top of his head, where the soul will come out.

 Family members recite prayers and repeat the mantra of the deceased, to help their soul to leave the body in a higher state. The last thought before dying is considered to be very important for the next reincarnation.

 Ideally, it should be cremated before the next dusk or dawn, whichever comes first.

Then the body is given appropriate care, a task that generally falls to the women of the family. The body is wrapped in a sheet, it is washed, the nails are cut, it is smeared with ghee (clarified butter) or oil, the thumbs are tied together, an orange shroud is placed in the case of married women or white in the case of men and widows. Then it is adorned with flowers and jewelry. Sometimes some leaves of the Tulsi tree and drops of holy water are placed in the mouth.

Rice is placed to feed on your journey. When the deceased is a man, the wife places the wedding pendant around her neck.

After all the preparations have been completed, the body is removed, first removed by the feet and transported to the cremation site. While the body is in the house, no family member or neighbor can eat, drink, or go to work.

At 6 or 7 hours the male relatives will take the body to the ghat, when it can be done in a procession, reciting the mantra: "Ram Naam Satya Hai" which means "the Name of Ram (God) is the Truth". Through the alleys that lead to the Manikarnika it is usual to come across the mourners who carry their dead relative.

Who will be in charge of the whole ritual will be the husband or son or the closest male relative in the absence of them. Women are not allowed in the funeral pyre, because they are considered to be more prone to cry and in Hinduism bodily fluids , including tears, contaminate the body and spirit of the deceased.

Once the ghat is reached, the first thing to do is immerse the body in the Ganges to purify it, cleanse its soul. Then it is left to dry for about two hours before putting it near the pyre. You must also make formal arrangements and payment for incineration.

Then the male relative who will officiate as a teacher the head must be shaved and dressed in a dothi and a white robe, formally registering who died with their personal data. You will go to the Shiva temple where the eternal flame of the sacred fire is, which has been unburnt for hundreds of years. Take that fire with a torch and go down to the pyre. You must circle the pyre five times counterclockwise accompanied by the Brahmin priest who reads sacred verses. These laps represent the five elements of fire, water, earth, air and spirit.

The mourner will kneel in front of the body to pray for a few minutes. Subsequently, the fabrics it carries are removed from the body until it leaves only one, more wood is placed on it until only the head is visible. In the process, more ghee is added to make the body burn more easily. And sandalwood so that it smells good. With the torch you will proceed to light the funeral pyre: on the foot in the case of a woman or on the head if it is a man.

The body ignites and begins to burn, taking approximately three hours to fully consume. For this, 300 to 350 kilos of firewood are needed. Depending on the purchasing power of the family, the quality of the wood will be mango, eucalyptus or similar for the most humble and sandalwood for wealthy families.

During the time it takes for the body to incinerate the Doms, the Dalit sub-caste (the untouchables, those who rank lowest in the Hindu social system) oversee the pyres and are the only ones who can manipulate the remains, checking that the body it is burning evenly and they add ghee or more straw to make sure.

The heat should cause the skull of the deceased to explode, it is one of the peak moments of the ritual since it is the moment in which the soul is released. If this does not happen, the sufferer will strike the skull with a long stick to help it split.

After that time, the body is cremated, except the sternum in the case of men and the hip in the case of women, which will be taken with rods by the doms and thrown into the river. Once the fire is almost extinguished the mourner takes water in a clay container, approaches the pyre and with his back to it places the container with water on his shoulder and throws it back, which means cutting ties between those who died and the underworld. The mourner must go without looking back so that the soul of the dead is not retained and follows him.

The ashes are poured into the waters of the Ganges.

In the Hindu religion there are exceptions for cremation and in these cases the bodies are deposited directly in the river with a ballast, these cases are:

  • Children under 12 years old, because they are still considered immature and therefore the soul remains without evil.
  • The Brahmins, who are the priests of Hinduism and are considered pure people.
  • Lepers, to prevent their ashes from contaminating the environment.
  • Those bitten by a cobra, because this snake is considered a god and therefore no longer needs purification.
  • Pregnant women, because their state already makes them pure.

A complete cremation with the firewood, use of the place and other additional ones can go from 800 dollars the cheapest to several thousand. This means a very lucrative business, but this is another story. Due to the high costs, the vast majority of Indians cannot access the necessary wood, so cremations are often carried out with less wood or mixed with wood. without drying, so that sometimes the bodies are not incinerated well.

In order for the humblest to access a cremation and also as part of a plan that aims to lower pollution levels, in 1989 electric crematoriums were introduced, located in the Harishchandra Ghat, although there are still fewer bodies cremated there, since He prefers to continue with the strict rituals.


After the cremation fire is extinguished, the relatives of the deceased perform rituals to purify themselves, because they were contaminated with the corpse's exposure. They should bathe in the closest place, generally the same river, shouting the name of the dead person. They then place rice and peas on the ground to confuse the ghosts and walk to a pleasant place to tell pleasant stories in their memory.

Hindus believe that the soul exists in a state of transition for 13 days until it is ready to move on to the next stage. In this period the family will comply with certain rites: they will offer rice balls and glasses of milk at the family altar, they must comply with a series of restrictions regarding diet, hygiene, dress and other social measures. Day 13 is when the soul passes into the next life and marks the end of the period of mourning, leading to a celebration.

Offering rites known as shraddha are performed once a year and feature a feast with a plate of food that

Varanasi is an impressive place, perhaps the strangest in India, for which it is good to arrive with some preparation so that you can understand its wonderful essence. It is a tremendous spiritual and cultural gift that he gives to those who open his heart.

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