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Varanasi is one of the most diverse, crazy, colourful, and intense places I have ever visited in India or indeed my entire life.
From the moment I landed to the moment I left, it was nothing but beautiful chaos.
It was also one of my first and favourite stops on my first trip to India and somewhere that, now I’ve experienced India A LOT more, I would feel happy coming back to.
A lot of travellers are put off due to the Varanasi cremation ghats, witnessing the cremations, and the throwing of dead bodies in the river. But, this totally shouldn’t sway you off a visit here and I’ll tell you why…
You don’t have to witness the Varanasi cremations ghats if you don’t want to!
There are 87 ghats (a ghat is literally a name for steps leading to a holy body of water) joined along the River Ganges in Varanasi and only a select few are official Varanasi burning ghats.
The rest are temples, places for washing, and hotels. Now I’m not gonna lie to you, walking along the ghats in Varanasi is an out-of-this-world experience to put it lightly.
You will not believe the things you will see, the smells that enter your nose, and the people you’ll meet or follow you.
Add in the humidity and it’s a bitter pill to swallow.
So, I thought I’d write this post to prepare you for what you will see, safety tips, and etiquette to not offend anyone.
Here’s an insight as to what it’s like visiting the Varanasi cremations ghats.
Just to let you know if you’re worried to read on – there are no pictures of bodies in this post.
Out of respect for the families, I didn’t take any pictures. It’s completely prohibited. I mean, why would you want to? It’s somebody’s funeral.
What is a Ghat?
First of all, I should probably explain what a Ghat is. This is something we’re not really aware of in the West.
By its very basic definition, a ‘Ghat’ is a series of steps leading down to a river.
These are commonplace in India and usually are attached to holy temples.
Ghats are used every day in India. This is what people use to bathe, wash clothes, perform aarti (religious ceremonies), and pray.
In Varanasi, you’ll find 87 ghats, or steps leading down to the holy River Ganges.
Why is the River Ganges sacred?
The Ganges river is considered holy and sacred. Hindus believe that the river is personified as the goddess Ganga.
Hindus also believe that the water of the Ganges is pure and bathing in the river will wash away any sins.
It’s also regarded as a place of Moksha (liberation from the cycle of life and death). So, this water source plays a huge part in daily lives.
Why is Varanasi considered holy?
Although it is commonly known that the River Ganges is thought of to be the embodiment of the Goddess Ganga. The reason why people believe Varanasi is so sacred is that it was created by Lord Shiva.
There are many legends in Hindu mythology about why Varanasi is so sacred. But, a popular one is a fight between Lord Brahma and Shiva.
The legend goes that Lord Shiva had a fight with Lord Brahma. Shiva ended up tearing off one of Brahma’s five heads.
As was the custom, Lord Shiva kept Brahma’s head in victory. When he arrived at the site of Varanasi, he dropped Lord Brahma’s head and it disappeared into the ground.
So, Varanasi is considered to be one of the holiest cities in all of India.
Other legends are that Shiva and his wife Parvati lived here at the beginning of time and that the Ganges was formed out of Shiva’s matted hair.
Why do Hindus cremate bodies by the River Ganges?
Hindus believe in reincarnation as part of their religious practices. According to Sanatana Dharma people are born, live, and die multiple times.
The reincarnation of the soul will happen as many times as it takes for the soul to finally be reunited with its source. The soul will do this until it reaches freedom or ‘Mukti’.
Hindus believe that the body is a prison for the soul and the soul is completely pure.
Once the body dies, Hindus believe that the body temporarily releases the soul from its earthly dwelling. But, it will soon be transported to a new body.
Therefore, in Hindu funerals, cremation is to sever the ties between the body and the soul. They believe that cremating bodies will allow the soul to move towards Mukti.
They hope that doing this will free the soul and move it further towards Mukti and Nirvana.
Fire is chosen as it is seen as purifying to help release the soul and wash away any sins. Every day around 100 bodies are cremated at the water’s edge in Varanasi on the River Ganges.
The preparation of cremating bodies in Varanasi
For many people, it’s a final wish to be cremated in Varanasi. The holiest city in all of India.
So, the process of the funeral rites could take place many weeks before death takes place. Many stay in Varanasi waiting to die in order to be cremated in the holy city.
Of course, many do not realise they are going to die. Sometimes death is sudden. So, the family will transport their relatives by car to the cremation site.
As you can imagine, with the heat in India. It takes a great amount of effort to keep the body from rotting. So, many stuff the boot of their car with ice.
Once the family arrives in Varanasi, it is the males of the family that take over the cremation process. This process starts with the eldest son of the family having his head shaved by a priest.
His hair is a symbol of his grief over the departed and an offering to the gods to help the soul release from the body.
It may surprise you to know that what ghats you are cremated on all comes down to your caste. If you’re a higher caste, you will be cremated in a separate area from a lower caste person.
What happens during the cremation process
Once the body arrives, the last rites and prayers are performed over the body for purification by an Antyeshti or priest.
At this point, the body is wrapped in orange cloth, and marigolds are placed on top.
It is then brought down to the river via the ghats on a wooden stretcher and placed by the water’s edge.
Family members then pour water over the body and into the mouth of the deceased. They then wait with the family member while the funeral pyre is created out of wood.
Higher caste families are usually buried with Sandalwood as this stops the smell of the burning body.
Once the pyre is built the body is then stripped down to a white sheet and placed on top of the pyre with more logs. Ghee (purified butter) is placed on the body to help it burn faster.
The body is then set alight to burn. The whole cremation process usually takes anywhere between 6 hours and the whole day.
Once the ceremony is complete, the family then returns for the ashes in 13 days. During this time, there are funeral rites that take place every day.
After the family collects the ashes, they release these into the River Ganges.
Exceptions to the cremation process
Although cremations are commonplace in the Hindu religion. There are some exceptions to this rule.
Pregnant women, very young children, and priests are not allowed to be cremated as they are seen as ‘too holy’.
Prostitutes are also not allowed to be cremated as they are not seen as holy enough.
They will still go into the River Ganges but with weights on their bodies! You may see these float up if you take a tour.
Also, some other afflictions like leprosy, smallpox, and being bitten by a cobra will not allow for cremation. Those people are buried in the ground.
How much does it cost to be cremated in Varanasi?
This all depends on what caste you are and what type of wood you wish to be cremated with.
Not many families can afford funeral pyres and even the cheapest type of wood could be too expensive for poorer families.
Funerals and cremations in Varanasi can cost anything between $10 and $100!
Important things to know before you visit the Varanasi Cremation Ghats
1. Come with an open mind
Death seems to be a taboo subject in the West and something that we keep hidden a lot and don’t talk about. Or, it seems that way to me.
But, for people in India, it’s something that is acceptable to talk about freely and watch.
When my great-grandmother died when I was four, I wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral. But here, I saw children around that age and even younger with their parents that came to watch the burning.
The best advice I can give you before you enter the ghats is to keep an open mind.
Accept that this isn’t your country and it’s part of Hindu culture here. People who practice the Hindu faith come to Varanasi to die or after they die to gain salvation for their sins and to enter Nirvana.
So, if you keep in mind that it’s a spiritual place and this is what they want this may bring some comfort.
2. There are A LOT of hawkers
One of the first things I noticed when I started walking along the ghats was how many hawkers there were.
Every other person asked me if I wanted a boat ride, wanted hash, wanted to watch the cremations or where I was going, and if they could show me around.
It can get extremely exhausting but just politely refuse or do what I do sometimes and ignore it altogether.
Coming from the West, some people may feel bad about it but you have to get over that. As soon as they’ve engaged in conversation with you they will expect something and won’t give up.
The only time I really kick-off is if someone touches me or pulls my clothes/hair, that I don’t like. But usually, just telling them ‘don’t touch’ makes them stop. Or, you can make a little scene and they will go running!
A lot of the tourism here you’ll find is connected, hotels have connections with boat sellers, taxis also have connections with tourist shops and it’s all there to get your money.
Always arrange tours and go shopping yourself to save being scammed.
3. Watch out for Varanasi cremation ghat scams
Something like 30% of people in Varanasi has employment, so there are a ton of scams for tourists in operation.
It’s the kingpin of the hustle and you’ll feel it as soon as you arrive.
Here are some scams to watch out for, some having happened to me;
- Varanasi Cremation ghat scam: People will ask you for wood for their families funeral
- A better view: They will ask you if you want a better view of the cremations and then ask for a horrendous amount of money
- Halfway house: They will take you to a halfway house and claim it’s people who are waiting to die, my tour guide and friends have verified this simply isn’t true. But a way to pull on your heartstrings
- Rickshaw scams: You have to negotiate a lot in Varanasi for a 3 wheeler, and if you’re new you may be taken on a wild goose chase to find your hotel. Always say you have a booking already (even if you don’t) That way they won’t take you to a place they will get commission
- Taxi driver/hotels: taxi driver will take you to a ‘boat man’ to negotiate a fee, they will say a ridiculous rate like 1800 rupees for one hour. Hotels will also have something similar in operation. Just head down to the ghats and negotiate your own. Taxi drivers/tour guides will also take you to shops they will gain a commission from.
- Milk for babies: street kids and mothers with empty bottles will ask you for milk. I was surprised when one street kid didn’t want my money but wanted me to buy a bag of milk. At first, I thought okay sure, but then realised it was a scam. The bag cost way too much and the mothers were giving it back to the shop and taking profit (no money or milk for the kid)!
4. Negotiate for a boat ride
The best way to see the River Ganges and the ghats in Varanasi is to take a boat ride at sunrise or in the morning time.
It’s more peaceful than walking along the ghats and is like an oasis compared to the deafening traffic in the city.
Don’t book a boat ride through your hotel or through a taxi driver; both will gain a commission.
The best thing to do is head to the main ghat and arrange a tour yourself or the night before.
Negotiating a boat ride in Varanasi is a challenge, but one you must take!
You need to be a pretty hardball with your haggling skills here but persevere, the price will eventually drop if you keep repeating the price you’re willing to pay.
You shouldn’t pay any more than 500 rupees per hour for a rowboat. I managed to get mine down to 300 an hour but this took around 30 minutes and haggling with around 5 drivers until I got the right price.
You’ll get all sorts of excuses about the current being high and it being festival time but the price shouldn’t be anymore.
Motorboats are also a good option if you want to travel down the river fast. But, you may pay a lot more.
I personally found it noisy, bumpy, and smelly. Make sure you ask the driver to stop for photos when you want to (not at the burning ghats of course).
5. If you don’t want to see bodies, make sure you say
Most boat rides down the River Ganges will stop at one of the Varanasi cremation ghats for a little while so you can see.
If this isn’t what you would like to do on your tour, then you need to tell the boat driver to move on past the cremation ghat.
Bodies are carried down to the river on a wooden stretcher (pyre) through the streets and are wrapped from head to toe in red cloth.
You won’t see the body. They will submerge it into the river and out several times.
Rice is placed in the mouth of the deceased and ghee is rubbed on the body.
Then the pyre is set on fire until the body is completely burned. The ashes are then scattered in the river.
The most you will personally see here at the burning ghat is the massive pile of logs for burning, the families, and the flames.
6. Do NOT take photos, even from the boat
As you’re pretty much-attending someone’s funeral by sailing by a Varanasi Cremation Ghat, it’s best to show the proper respect by not smiling and laughing (not that you would).
You should dress conservatively and in no way, by any means take photos. If you have your camera or phone out, do not be surprised if you hear people shouting at you from afar.
It will probably be the family members getting annoyed.
Of course, it’s acceptable to take photos along with the other parts of the river but when you approach the burning ghats it’s a big no, no.
7. Take a long shower and wash your clothes
You will find that if you have come close to the Varanasi cremation ghats or sat and watched from the river that the ashes of the burning bodies may get on your body and clothes.
Make sure you take a long shower and wash your hair to make sure you don’t have any left on you when you reach your hotel.
8. Learn and accept (or try to)
I think many people hear what Varanasi is all about and completely discard it. But, learning and accepting other cultures is what travelling is all about!
I would say that if you are travelling to India, that Varanasi is a must-visit.
Yes, there are Varanasi cremation ghats but there are also spiritual temples, beautiful Ganga aarti’s to watch, amazing people to meet, and loads of other stuff to get up to if you didn’t want to experience the cremation side of it.
It’s a rollercoaster of emotions and will stick with you for a lifetime. Make sure you don’t miss out!
Want to read more about Varanasi?
I’ve been to Varanasi four times now and travelled there solo, so you can read my honest and informative articles about Varanasi below;