Varanasi: City of Life and Death

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Ghats, worshippers of idol, the Ganges, pyres, Lord Shiva
& the ultimate liberation.

Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited places, and, like all such places, it is steeped in religion and history. It is the most sacred city for Hindus and significant for the Buddhists as well. Various traditions of belief are manifest here: theists or worshippers of idol, nature, god and animals; practitioners of Tantric thought; the agnostics; and, finally, the atheists.

It is death here that fascinates most, especially non-Hindus. A local guide in the city told me that around twenty to fifty cremations take place in Varanasi every day. These cremations never stop, not even during festivals. In fact, people often move to the city once they have decided there is nothing else left to do in life but to die.

This old city has been destroyed and rebuilt many times during its history. Its current shape and structure were given to it by the Marathas Empire. They built the ghats, which are essentially riverfront steps leading to the banks of river Ganges. There are a total of eighty-seven such ghats, and one of these is the burning ghat, Manikarnika Ghat.

Unlike in Abrahamic thought, death is not considered a finality in the Hindu belief. A soul doesn’t die; it merely leaves a body. The soul keeps taking birth until it has balanced out its karmic ledger of actions performed and faced their consequences, whether good or bad. But because life can seem like a unwinnable game in that context, people often seem to want to get out of it by wanting moksha, or the ultimate liberation. A way to attain this is to die in Varanasi. The city is believed to be holy and blessed because it is the abode of Lord Shiva, one of the three major deities in Hinduism.

Cremating the body on a pyre and then immersing the ashes in the holy water of the Ganges completes the process of letting the elements of body dissolve into earth, sky, water, fire and space. There is no way of knowing for sure if a soul has found moksha after being released in Varanasi, but then, it’s a matter of faith. —Garima Garg

Garima Garg is a New Delhi–based journalist and photographer. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, her work has been published in Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Telegraph, all of which are popular English-language dailies in India. While she has worked across several beats, she is currently focused on telling stories of the arts and cultures of India. More of her work can be seen at (All photos © Garima Garg)

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