Varanasi ghats India

Life & Death Along the Ghats of Varanasi, India

I watched a body burn in Varanasi. Actually, I watched about 10 bodies burn at the same time, their feet melting on one end of the wooden blanket, their skulls poking through the other. I stood in disbelief, sweat dropping down my face from my close proximity to the flames, as if I were about to roast a marshmallow at a bonfire.

Despite the man next to me describing the history of these public cremations in a serious but lighthearted tone, urging me to continue walking, I couldn’t move. I had never seen a body crumble to ashes before. India would show me many things I’d never before seen.Varanassi, India Ghats

Varanasi wasn’t on my original itinerary, which is to say I almost didn’t see the heart of India. By heart, I mean Varanasi is beating with life, from the ceaseless, winding alleyways that make up Old Town, to the long lines of pilgrims waiting under the hot sun to enter the city’s best temples, to the bustling traffic scene rife with rickshaws, tuk tuks and the occasional elephant amongst a singing and dancing entourage en route to a wedding (check back next week for my Indian wedding experience).

Many have called Varanasi home for years – it’s one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world – but many more come here just to die.

All faithful Hindus hope Varanasi is the end of their road. If one can make the journey before his heart stops beating, to die in Varanasi is to be set on the path to enlightenment, because to die in the holiest city in India means your body will be cremated with flames from the eternal fire, and tossed into the almighty Ganges, left to float away from your struggles and sins in this life, and sink into the unknown of the next.

Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi Public cremations

Stacks of wood in preparation for cremations at the Manikarnika burning ghat. Photos are prohibited, so this is as close as I could get.

Where I stood at Manikarnika, the largest of the two popular burning sites, there is a constant rotation of bodies. Each is allotted up to three hours, assuming the families purchased enough special wood (a variety that doesn’t smell, with sandalwood being at the top of the price list) to finish the job. Many more bodies are lined up on bamboo stretchers covered in shiny gold cloth and bright pink bows, awaiting one of the coveted open fires after being paraded through the city – death is not a crying matter in the East; it’s a cause for celebration.

And that is what the rest of the living seem to do along the famous riverside of Varanasi, a long stretch connecting nearly 80 ghats where people of all walks of life converge, though whether they’re celebrating life or the coming of death, one cannot know, for many look toward what us Westerners view as the end with enough vigor to match our unease.

Varanassi, India Ghats

There are those who come to relax, meet with friends and enjoy a cup of chai.

Varanassi, India turban

Varanassi, India GhatsVaranassi, India GhatsChai in Varanasi India

There are others who appear to have come with a purpose. Perhaps to see the barber…Varanassi, India GhatsOr to wash their beloved cow…

Varanassi, India Ghats CowOr to perform puja, prayer.

Varanassi, India Ghats PujaOthers are here because it’s home.

Varanassi, India GhatsVaranassi, India Ghats

And others, like me, made the journey directly from the Maha Kumbh Mela festival (the world’s largest religious gathering). For those faithful pilgrims, it’s ceremonial to follow your bath in the Ganges at Allahabad with a gift of offerings at a particular temple in Varanasi. And, while you’re here, why not bathe again, and then take a scenic boat tour?

Varanassi, India GhatsVaranassi, India Ghats

Boat tour Varanasi India

At one of the ghats, two foreigners had constructed a makeshift portrait studio (you can do anything you want here, it seems), and many picturesque sadhus happily posed. I took advantage of the brilliant idea.

India sadhu varanasiDSC_0084

At sunset, the ganga aarti, takes place along the Dasaswamedh Ghat with a beautiful, choreographed ritual of respect to the Gods.

Ganga aarti Varanasi, IndiaGanga aarti Varanasi, India

Varanasi turned out to be my favorite place in India, with it’s vibrant displays of both life and death. There are many Indians who would happily trade places with those already set free. Life for many is difficult, and the promise of a better one next time around is enticing, but one must not take the easy way out. Committing suicide (and murder) ensures an exemption from enlightenment. So, for those who spend their lives praying their hearts will stop beating, there’s nothing to do but wait.

Sadhus Varanasi Ghats

Have you been to India? What was your favorite part/place/city? I love comments!



Life & Death Along the Ghats of Varanasi, India
Written by:Jessica J. Hill


  1. Wow, Varanasi sounds like an incredible place, and this was a brilliant post. It takes a lot for me to be gripped to something because in all honesty I’m not the biggest fan of reading, but this post was really gripping. You get the sense of being there, especially with the addition of photo’s, I enjoyed the read.

  2. Brenda says:

    What a captivating story you’ve told here, Jessica. I had to re-read it a couple of times! Love your photos as well.

  3. nhiraist says:

    Not only are the photos awesome but I feel like I was there with you. So wild!

  4. how incredibly beautiful.

  5. SeniSilat says:

    Pfffffffffffff…. Superbe série… Merci !!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Maxine says:

    I’ve just been to Varanasi and I loved it too. I also wasnt there for any reason just tagged along as my travel buddy wanted to go but it was spectacular. You blog really brought back memories.

    • jessicajhill says:

      It’s a one-of-a-kind place, isn’t it? I think it’s the picture of India that everyone envisions before they go. I’m glad you were able to experience it as well!

  7. Very nice story! I always find it interesting to read about people’s personal experiences and feelings when travelling and seeing new things. You did an excellent job of vocalising that 🙂 The photo of the cow is golden btw…

  8. Nitin says:

    I love reading your posts, n learning abt Indian culture through your posts! India is really so diverse and each part of India has a lot to offer and each one is so different from other. I m tempted to visit theses places 🙂

    • jessicajhill says:

      You’re right. I didn’t have time to go to the south, but I’m cure it’s vastly different. I’ll be back one day to do that!

      Have you not been to Varanasi?

  9. First off, great photos. I especially love the pics at the aarti on the Ganges. You had a great angle for those shots of the ceremony.

    Varanasi was also my favorite place in India which is saying something because I loved everything in India. No matter how far and wide a person travels, they can never compare Varanasi to any other place. It is totally unique.

    In an earlier post, you had a love/hate relationship with India. Where do you fall now?

    • jessicajhill says:

      Thanks for your kind comment, Jeff! I did have a great view for the ganga aarti – I was standing on one of the puja platforms because the sadhu let me stay after I prayed! Varanasi really is an amazing place, but one must see it to believe.

      You’re right. For the first four weeks in India, I wasn’t sure what to think, but something switched after that one month mark and I fell in love with it. Perhaps it was because I finally began to understand, at least a little, what makes India tick, and how to get around without getting ripped off! I needed a break after six weeks, but I desperately want to go back! Did you make it to the south?

  10. rashmi srivastava says:

    Thankyou for describing my city so well … god bless

  11. goanflavour says:

    I have yet to go to Varansi.
    SInce my college was in the north of India, I’ve explored quite a lot of Himachal Pradesh by bus and car on a low budget :).
    I love the mountains for their coolness, peace and relaxed pace as compared to the heat of the plains. Mcleodganj, Dharamshala, Kasauli, Chandigadh are all beautiful places.
    Currently, I’m staying near north Goa and discovering the west coast of India, another fascinating place full of cultural and natural beauty.

    • jessicajhill says:

      I loved Himachal Pradesh! The northern parts are really beautiful – I wish I would have seen more, including Mcleodganj and Dharamsala, but I’ll just have to go back 😉 Hopefully you’ll get to Varanasi one of these days.

      Goa was on my original itinerary, but I ran out of time. How would you compare life in the South?

      • goanflavour says:

        Goa is completely different from north or south. There are a lot of churches here, and the people are completely relaxed Shops close on Sunday afternoons so that people can have a siesta :P!
        Life is relaxed here, much more than the cities of the north.
        Of course, nothing beats the mountains :)!

        • jessicajhill says:

          That sounds like a relaxing getaway! I heard it was party central? Glad you’re enjoying it there.

          • goanflavour says:

            Yep, lots of parties. Its peak summer now, and then 2 months of rain in June-July.

            Party season will start again in Oct-Dec.

            Sometimes I wonder how people have the energy to party so much.

          • jessicajhill says:

            Yeah – some people amaze me with their resiliency. I feel old that I can’t keep up anymore…but my excuse is I started young 😉

  12. Edna says:

    “So, for those who spend their lives praying their hearts will stop beating, there’s nothing to do but wait.” Wow. So powerful.

  13. That’s interesting. I once interviewed a travel writer who said he will never go back to Varanasi even if his life depended on it. I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective… I love your posts. Can’t wait until I get to go there!

  14. Ashley says:

    I dream of going to India! This post was great, and I can’t say enough about how much I love all the photos! Glad to be back reading your blog!

  15. Jessica! Beautiful post. We had no idea that a place like this existed, and you brought its story forward with beauty and heartfelt appreciation. Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

  16. Tyana says:

    Wow ,thanks for sharing this lovely post i really liked it, especially i like the Ganga aarti images i have never seen before .

  17. RAVI says:

    what a wonderful explation with d brilliant photos of yours u hv given,actually i m a student here in varanasi nd d thing that amazes and excites me most abt dis city is d serenity at ganga ghats in d morning and long life of buildings and temples around the river…. its rightly said by MARK TWAIN : “”Varanasi” is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”.

  18. Wow, a great read. Out of all the places in India I want to visit Varanasi the most. Loved the pictures

    • jessicajhill says:

      Thanks, Christian! You definitely should. It was my favorite place in India, but I often wonder if I would have liked it so much if it were my first stop. It took me a while to understand the place enough to fall in love with it.

  19. AJAY KUMAR SINGH says:

    great click pic of varanasi. vranasi my birth place i am artist i see your pic on net current remember my city, thaks for bellyful remembering, i am current live in Mumbai,

  20. Ashutosh says:

    Thank you for sharing such a nice information.

  21. Phil Spectralz says:

    Nice article. That is a water buffalo by the way, not a cow. 🙂

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