Department of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology of the RWTH Aachen University

The burning ghats of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

Varanasi, situated at the western bank of the river Ganga, is known as one of the oldest cities in India and the holiest Tīrtha (pilgrimage site) for Hindus. In the Hinduistic faith, taking a bath in the holy river Ganga or even die in Varanasi is most desirable. This is why the city is visited by many pilgrims each day and while sitting on one of over 100 ghats, you can see how they take their ritual bath to get sanctified. This essay is a short introduction about the importance of water as a symbolism referring to death in Varanasi.

In the Hindu mythology water is the source of life and creation, therefore rivers and riverbanks are considered to be holy. Especially the segment of the river Ganga at the riverbanks of Varanasi augurs graciousness. This is why the river is personified as a goddess and is called “Mother Ganga”. Due to the importance of the mythological meaning, the ghats are often visited by pilgrims who want to get sanctified by bathing in the water of the holy river or drink it. The ghats with a total length of about five kilometres are steps going downwards to the river and could be seen as a pilgrimage site which unifies the holy city with the holy river. They are places where religious people can meet and celebrate their “Pujas”, which are nearly daily celebrated religious rituals, but they are also places where deceased get burnt.

The cremation takes place at special burning ghats which are located along the riverbank next to the bathing ghats in the heart of the city: Manikarnika and Harishchandra Ghat. Harishchandra Ghat is the smaller one and is named after a king who was the caretaker of the crematorium. This ghat can be used by all religions and castes whereas the primary cremation ghat, Manikarnika Ghat, is reserved for Hindus and covers 2/3 of the total amount of cremations.

Since the two burning ghats are situated near the centre of the city, you can see that death has an important meaning in Varanasi. According to the Hindu belief, dying and getting burnt in Varanasi offers the opportunity that you can reach moksha. This is the state of liberation/escape from the cycle of rebirth and death, loss of egoistic self and union with Brahman. It is the ultimate aim of every Hindu to achieve this state.

Cremation is a very important ritual for Hindus and it constitutes a sensitive interaction with gods by which the deceased is given to the divinities. So the cremation should not be seen as just a disposing of the body. By burning the dead body, the spiritual essence of an individual releases from the physical body hence the cycle of rebirth and death can continue. If the cremation was not done the right way, the soul cannot find the way to the afterlife and as a result it will bother living relatives. Fire is associated with purity and power to scare ghosts and demons and that is the reason it is chosen as the right method to enable the complete division of spiritual essence and physical body.

If someone dies, special funeral rites, known as Antyeshti Sanskara, are executed. The deceased is dressed in new clothes, the body is covered with flowers and garlands and some drops of holy Ganga water can be put into the mouth. In the city of Varanasi, you can often see groups of men, all dressed in white, carrying a decorated bier with a dead person on it on their way to the cremation grounds. Only men take part in the cremation ceremony and they are all close relatives of the deceased.

At the cremation grounds, a pyre is prepared where the dead body is laid. The chief mourner, who is usually the eldest son, walks five times around the body to represent the five elements (fire, earth, water, air and ether) which should be given back to their source. He sprinkles Ganga water across the body, puts some sandalwood on it and then lights the fire. To burn a body, about 360 kg of wood are needed and the cremation lasts for three hours. While walking along the street near a burning ghat you can see a lot of wood collected for the pyres. When you take a boat tour on the river Ganga you can see the pyres burning and smouldering all the time.


Woodpile for the funeral pyres

But some people do not get burnt for different reasons.

–          Children under a certain age because their souls are still pure so they do not need to get purified

–          People suffering from smallpox as well as lepers because the gods already retained them

–          Pregnant women because they carry a new life in their body

–          People bitten by a cobra because they may get back to life

–          Holy men/priests because their souls are also pure

After the cremation, the leftovers are immersed into the Ganga by the chief mourner. The rips and the hip bones do not burn completely, so the Doms, men from a class of untouchables working at the burning ghats, collect those bones and put them into the river. This has a cooling and purifying effect and finally releases the spiritual essence from the body.

There is the period of mourning which lasts for usually twelve days. The day after cremation the family does not cook at all. The male members shave and cut their hair and all relatives are often dressed in white, the colour of purity. The twelfth day is the end of Antyeshti Sanskara and the division of spiritual essence from the physical body is fulfilled.

Cremation is very expensive and poor people often cannot afford this ritual. One opportunity is that they get money from the government, but they also can just put the deceased into the river Ganga without cremation. Sadly it sometimes happen that dead bodies are found in the river.

When you are in Varanasi there are a lot of things dealing with death like the woodpiles near the cremation grounds or the biers carried across the streets. There are many hospices where old people are waiting for their death and hope for achieving moksha.

  1. Katharina Albert

    I once saw a priest and twice cows floating down the stream. At mahakanika Ghat, we were told, that there is a hospice near that ghat taking care of “old and weak” people who is waiting for their dead and to be cremated there. some people comes from other cities just to be burnt in Varanasi.

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