A body burns on a funeral pyre while an attendant prods the logs with a pole to keep it alight.
The smoke is thick around the public funeral ground. Eyes are stinging, and the air is heavy with the smells of burning wood, incense, and – somewhat disturbingly – an aroma described as being like barbecuing meat. Piles of wood smoulder and burn along the riverbanks, occasionally poked by men or boys with sticks in order to keep them alight. Here and there, jutting from the stacked lots, you can make out a human limb or head of one of the departed – their soul believed to be on its way to heaven. This is not a place for the squeamish.
Varanasi’s ghats are large stone steps constructed along the banks of India’s holy river, the Ganges. For centuries, people have been coming here to pray, meditate, bathe and, famously, cremate their dead. Despite the ancient and sacred character of the place, however, visitors to these steps should expect more of a jostling market atmosphere than a place for quiet contemplation. The larger of the burning ghats, Manikarnika (where these photographs were taken), is believed to host around 200 cremations in a single day.
Bodies smoulder and burn while onlookers chat among themselves.
The funeral ghats of Varanasi are well known – which some might say is fortunate, given that stumbling unexpectedly across a human body burning on top of a pile of logs would come as rather a shock to the unsuspecting! Most visitors are not only aware of what goes on here; many come especially to observe this ancient ritual – whether out of cultural curiosity or mere morbid fascination.
A Dom caste funeral worker stokes the pyre.
Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat are the two ghats used for funeral fires in Varanasi. Legend says that an ancient Hindu king Harishchandra once worked at the cremation ground (later named after him) after he had been sold into slavery. These days, the grounds are worked by members of the ‘untouchable’ Dom caste. It is said that the work is so despicable that Doms cry when their children are born and rejoice when one of their number dies – death representing a final liberation from their unpleasant duties.
The pyres are kept burning until only ashes remain – but only if the mourners can afford enough wood.
With impressive business acumen, the Doms have managed to make the best of their seemingly undesirable circumstances. In Varanasi they control the funeral business, and no one can be cremated without paying the Doms for their services. It is thought the Doms have become rich from their traditional responsibilities, with the current ‘Dom Raja’, or leader, being described as a multimillionaire.
A funeral procession on the way to the cremation ground.
The popularity of Varanasi’s cremation ghats stems from the Hindu belief that those whose remains are submerged in the holy Ganges river after death are guaranteed a good afterlife. Even Western celebrities such as George Harrison wanted their ashes scattered here.
It is also considered a particularly auspicious place to die, as those who are bathed in or even sprinkled with Ganges water at the time of their death will be released from the cycle of death and rebirth and will instead reside in paradise forever.
The bodies are wrapped in gold and silver cloth to begin with, then burned in simple white or orange shrouds.
The first step when cremating a loved one at the ghats (much as it is in the West) is to choose a funeral package. The price that relatives and friends can afford will determine the amount of wood used, and how much of it will be the desirable sandalwood, as well as the quantity and quality of other cremation necessities like ghee (clarified butter), straw and religious services.
A decent funeral generally costs anywhere from US $12 to US $71, but the costs can vary widely. Poor families may only be able to buy a sprinkle of sacred sandalwood powder, while the wealthy may pay for an entire pyre of the expensive wood.
How much mourners can afford to pay determines the quality and even location of the funeral pyre.
Those who can afford it wrap their deceased first in shrouds made of silver and gold. As Hindus traditionally see death as an occasion for celebration – because the deceased is hopefully headed for a better rebirth, or even heaven – the procession that accompanies the body as likely to seem as cheerful as it is solemn.
Crying at funerals is discouraged – partly because it is not simply (if at all) viewed as a sad occasion and partly because bodily fluids, like tears, are considered ‘pollutants’ at religious rites. For this reason, women have traditionally been barred from funeral grounds, the reasoning being that they are more likely to weep than men.
The Dom cast of ‘untouchables’ has a fiercely held monopoly on funerals at the ghats.
Before laying the body on the funeral pyre (now in a white shroud), the relatives plunge it quickly into the Ganges and then rub it with ghee – the latter for religious reasons, and possibly to help it burn better. Men are usually placed face up on the pyre while women are cremated face down.
The eldest son or male relative (the chief mourner) typically sets the wood alight, starting near the mouth, with a sacred flame taken from a nearby temple. It is then the attending Doms’ job to see that the fire burns evenly by adding straw and ghee and prodding it with poles when necessary.
Wood is brought into Varanasi from a great distance, making complete funeral pyres too expensive for some.
A body burned in this way normally takes about three-and-half hours to reduce to ashes. If the mourners are lucky, the skull will explode in the heat. This, according to Hindu belief, releases the soul to heaven. If this does not happen, it is up to the chief mourner to crack it open himself when the fire has died down. Quite a responsibility.
After the cremation, any remaining bones (for some reason usually a hip bone for women and a chest bone for men) are thrown with the ashes into the river.
After the cremation, ashes, bones, and sometimes partially burned body parts are poured into the river.
Sometimes poorer people cannot afford enough wood to completely burn a body. In this case charred body parts are simply flung into the river with the ashes. Certain people, such as small children, pregnant women and holy men, are not cremated at all, but instead simply have their bodies weighted down with stones and are dropped into the Ganges. Not too pleasant for the many bathers around the ghats.
As a solution to the problem of human remains clogging up the Ganges, snapping turtles were bred and released into the river specifically to eat the corpses and bones. A good idea, maybe, but since bodies and body parts are still seen floating around the river today, perhaps not as effective as originally hoped.
The burning ghats are a 24-hour hive of activity.
Apart from dead bodies in the river, there are other environmental concerns about the burning ghats. For one, the funeral pyres require an enormous amount of wood for fuel. To effectively burn a body takes about 300 kilograms (660 lbs.) of wood, and multiplied by the tens of thousands of people who are cremated here every year, it’s small wonder Varanasi has no local forest left. Wood has to be carted in from over a thousand kilometers away.
The government tried to address this problem in the 1990s by building an electric crematorium near the Ganges. Religious customs are hard to change, however, and most people still prefer to send off their dead the old-fashioned way. Constant power outages at the crematorium don’t help either.
A view of Manikarnika from the Ganges river.
The funeral pyres of Varanasi are without doubt one of the most amazing sights in India. Although to some of us they may seem macabre and grisly, to Hindus, death and all its aspects are seen as an important, and indeed joyful, part of life that should be embraced rather than hidden away.
Tourists are not discouraged from visiting the burning ghats, although for obvious reasons visitors should try to maintain an attitude of respect around the cremation site. Women are generally not allowed into the funereal area, although April Maciborka, the photographer who took most of these pictures, managed a quick 10-minute visit to take her shots. We thank her for the fascinating insight she’s given us into an ancient ritual – which remains as strong as ever today.