Only in Varanasi, India, do funeral pyres burn twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Known as one of India’s holiest cities and a popular tourist destination, Varanasi is a unique creation of Indian culture and ritual. It’s known as the spiritual capital of India and the city of temples. Everything is loud, colorful, and open in Varanasi—death included.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What is Varanasi, India Famous For?
- Why Do People Travel to Varanasi?
- Death Traditions and Rituals in Varanasi
Varanasi sits on the bank of the Ganges river. Every day, you can find hundreds of cremated bodies along the banks of this river. Legend has it that Lord Shiva, one of the most important gods in Hinduism, caught the Ganges in his hair so she could not escape then let her trickle down to earth. Then he chose Varanasi as his favorite city and lived on the banks of the river.
For Indians, the Ganges isn’t just a body of water; it’s a living and breathing goddess just like the pulse of Varanasi. In this guide, we’ll explore the history behind Varanasi and what this ancient city teaches us about embracing death.
What is Varanasi, India, Famous For?
Varanasi is the spiritual capital of the world. Not only is it a special place for Hindus, but people from death cultures all over the world identify with the city. Legend says it was Lord Shiva that founded the city, but he isn’t the only religious figure familiar with it.
Outside of the city center lies Sarnath, where Buddha delivered his first sermon. Scholars speculate that even Jesus visited Varanasi while exploring parts of India. Varanasi is the city of many names. The locals call it Banaras for the King Benar that lived there. Still, others call it Kashi (very ancient) or Molini after the lotus flower.
Thousands of people come to the banks of the Ganges river at sunrise. Because of the rich religious history, you can find people bathing in the water of the Ganges to bless themselves and bring good luck. Others perform rituals or pray in the river. Some people say visiting Varanasi brings blessings for locals and tourists alike.
It’s not just religious history that is famous in Varanasi. The silks produced here are considered some of the finest in the world. The textile industry led to the growing popularity of this city thousands of years ago.
Since then, Varanasi is considered the oldest inhabited city in the world. The famous writer Mark Twain said, “Benares [Varanasi] is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
Why Do People Travel to Varanasi?
There’s a spirit in Varanasi. There are thousands of pilgrims from around India and the world who come to experience the spiritual energy of the city. Over 2.5 million people per year bathe in the Ganges as life revolves around it.
While people pray, funeral pyres burn bodies in Ghats—concrete steps leading to the river. People travel here to visit the Ghats. They are several miles long, and locals use each Ghat for different reasons. People perform death rituals, bathe, and hold celebrations on the steps.
Others travel to Varanasi for the architectural marvels. Known as the city of temples, there are over 23,000 temples in the city alone. The most famous temple is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. It’s dedicated to Lord Shiva. Thousands of pilgrims come here to pray then bathe in the river. It’s not only a religious place but an architectural marvel with gold plating, black stone, and silver accents.
Other landmarks include the Scindia ghat. On these steps, you can take a look at the submerged temple of Lord Shiva leaning on its side. There are countless other cultural landmarks to look at. Still, others come for the festivities.
Ritual and celebration in Varanasi
There are many reasons to celebrate in Varanasi. As the holiest city, it brings together a melting pot of religions and cultures. Varanasi is death positive and full of rituals. Instead of turning an eye, the locals accept death and celebrate its existence. Locals hold rituals here that not only celebrate death, but life too. In Varanasi, they take on a life of their own.
One such festival is Diwali or the festival of light. Usually, Hindus light candles and decorate their homes on Diwali. In Varanasi, the holiday takes on a new meaning: when the Hindu Gods come back down to earth to bathe in the river Ganges. Celebrants take a bath in the holy water as millions of lamps float along the river.
Another famous ritual in Varanasi is the Gange Aarti. They witness priests light incense and chant mantras for Lord Shiva and the Goddess Gange. There’s not a day when the worship of the holy river doesn’t go unnoticed as tourists and locals flock to watch priests perform at one of the main ghats.
Death Traditions and Rituals in Varanasi
Death rituals are powerful in Varanasi, and life revolves around the burning corpses and prayer. Tourists watch daily as cremations happen on the banks of the Ganges river. In both the Hindu and Buddhist afterlife, moksha is the end of the cycle of rebirth. To achieve moksha is to end suffering. It’s freedom from death. Below you’ll find out how locals incorporate death into life.
Cremations on the Ganges River
Varanasi is where Hindu’s come to die. For the dying, it’s the greatest honor to die and be cremated in Varanasi. In fact, some people spend their entire life savings on cremation. Since the city is so important to Lord Shiva, Hindus believe they’ll achieve moksha if they die there.
Even those who die a bad death like suicide or illness have a chance at moksha—if they die in Varanasi. Only the Doms, special types of caretakers, can light the fire. Usually, these citizens are seen as a lower class, but during death, they are respected.
Legend says that Lord Shiva cursed them when a member tried to steal Goddess Parvati’s earring. Since then, they are the keepers of the flame. Anyone who visits Varanasi will witness Doms burning the pyres seven days a week as the deceased enter into enlightenment.
Locals play with ashes
You may be familiar with Holi, the Indian harvest festival. Holi celebrates good over evil and love over hate. Varanasi has its own version of Holi called chita-bhasma Holi. Usually, Holi attendees throw colored powder into the air but not in Varanasi—here people throw ashes to celebrate death. Ancient myths say that Lord Shiva began the tradition of throwing ashes when he came to Varanasi. It’s been a local and tourist favorite ever since.
Hair offerings for Gods
In Hindu culture, offering hair to the Gods is especially important for a long life. In Varanasi, worshippers offer their hair to the river goddess and pray to Lord Shiva. Family members also shave their heads as a sign of respect for their deceased loved ones. Millions of Hindus shave their head every year, believing it will bring them good luck.
Pind Daan for the deceased
Hindus perform special rituals to make sure the deceased reach the afterlife. If they’re not performed, then the spirit won’t reach moksha—even in Varanasi. This ritual helps transfer the soul immediately to the world of ancestors instead of suffering in other realms. There are various offerings, from debts paid by the family to offerings of food and water.
Death and Ritual Planning
In the West, we tend to shy away from death. Shrouded bodies, dark clothes, and a somber atmosphere mark the typical Western funeral. In India, death is open. Locals even invite tourists to walk through the burning bodies for good luck. If there’s one lesson to be learned from Varanasi, it’s death openness.
Death isn’t a pleasant subject to think about but a necessary one. Use our conversation starters to begin to talk about death with a loved one or take a look at our end of life checklist. Whether you're secular or spiritual, taking charge of death planning gives you peace of mind to look towards the future.
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- “Science behind Pind Daan & why should we perform this ritual?” Tirth Kshetra Purohit. Tirthpurohit.org
- Riel, Bob. “Two Laps Around the World: Tales and Insights from a Life Sabbatical.” IUniverse. 2007.