Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Macabre Way To Find Salvation In Varanasi Burning Ghats

The swami looked at me with sober yet penetrating eyes and asked me “what you find in lonely beaches in Rishiskesh or lap in Himalayas?” It seemed he was fishing for an answer.

“Just pleasure,” I replied pointedly rejected the bait. 

The whole journey from Kolkata to Varanasi was simply awesome because of my extreme good fortune to get in touch with Swami Sarvatmananda, a senior monk in Ramkrishna Order (Ramkrishna Math). He lives in Devprayag and now quite busy in some project of Ramakrisha Mission.

The journey was pleasurable for some invaluable suggestions from the monk who indirectly and sometimes directly suggested me not to wander or do anything aimlessly, but Varanasi welcomed me with lots of problem. I will later narrate the whole of my journey but this post is especially reserved for burning pyre and dead bodies I saw in the first day.

Salvation in Burning Ghats

Hindus believe Kashi (Varanasi) is a shortcut way to salvation. Being born and die in the oldest city of the world loosen the chain of vicious cycle of birth and death.

A burning pyre
I was standing in the front of a burning ghat, watching a body burn on a funeral pyre while an attendant prods the logs with a bamboo stick to keep it fine. A black clad Aghora in naked feet standing in front of the body and talking to the attendant. Rain was continuously pouring and the whole atmosphere seemed morbidly solemn to me.

Some Western travelers were standing at the ghat and watching this macabre of death. My eyes were stinging and the air was heavy with the smell of burning logs, incense and bodies – somewhat disturbing – an atmosphere that straightaway repels any urban young guy like me. However, I was standing and watching the whole process because somehow death fascinates me. The place, after all, from time immemorial is believed from where the soul departs on Its way to heaven. This is certainly not a place for the fainthearted and squeamish. 

Manikarna Burning ghat
These ghats are the major attractions in Varanasi, which are large stone steps alongside the river Ganges. Hindus come here for pray, meditate, bathe, and burn their relatives’ bodies. Despite a sacred character of ghats, nevertheless, the place gives a jostling atmosphere rather than a place for silent contemplation. You can obviously find a calm place because the area is too big and wide. Numerous boats take people for a joy ride along the ghats for hours. The largest Manikarnika ghat is believed to witness around 200 cremations per day.

Curiously, a subset of Hindus is not allowed to incinerate here. People like Sadhus, lepers, children under five, pregnant women and snake-bite victims are left to Ganges alone. It is believed that their corpses do not require purification by fire, so they are taken to the middle of Ganges, tied to a stone and left there to be embraced by holy Ganges. I haven’t seen till now but if you see a floating body on the surface of Ganges, don’t get spooked. 

Life ends on logs
Watching death always keep remind me the famous answer of Yudhisthira from Mahabharata. When he was asked what’s the greatest wonder in the world. He replied: “ each day we see death strikes, still we live in a way as if we are immortal.”

“From earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

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  • masterymistery says:
    February 17, 2013 at 12:20 PM

    Excellent post, thanks very much. Entertaining, interesting/fascinating and enlightening. "Wanderlust" is going on the Cosmic Rapture blogroll (under heading "other domains" in the right hand column.

    masterymistery at
    cosmic rapture

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