Life and Death in Varanasi


The first photograph in this post appears in INDIA UNPOSED. Semetko uses it as a jumping off point to tell about life…and death…in Varanasi:

“This photograph from the book was taken in the early morning hours in Varanasi, considered by Hindus to be the most holy city in India. The man in the foreground was standing in the River Ganga and appeared to be fishing with a single line while the boatmen seem to be heading out to fish with nets. There is much more than fishing going on in Varanasi, however.

Varanasi, also known as Benares, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the planet, and you can feel its history with every step you take along the Ganga. Many Hindus hope to die in Varanasi, as they believe dying there will grant them salvation from the endless cycle of life. If one cannot actually die there, the next best thing is to be cremated there. As a result, there is a great deal of activity in Varanasi surrounding death. You often see deceased people carried through the streets by their loved ones to the ghats to be cremated.
The ghats are concrete steps that lead down into the River Ganga, most of which are for bathing in the holy river, but some are used strictly for cremation. Bodies are burned at the cremation ghats 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Each fire in this picture is a small funeral pyre. There is a hierarchy to the placement of the pyres—the bodies from wealthy families are positioned higher and closer to the Ganga and are burned with Sandalwood, and the poorer deceased are cremated with cheaper wood. Sometimes families cannot afford enough wood to complete the cremation, in which case the charred remains of their loved ones are thrown into the river.
As you might imagine, enormous amounts of wood are needed to fuel the endless fires, and it is shipped in constantly.
Ironically, a large modern electric crematorium was built next to the ancient ghats, one that is both environmentally friendly and much cheaper than traditional cremation, however it is hardly used as ancient tradition is preferred and unscrupulous wood salesmen convince many visiting pilgrims that electric cremation will not lead to salvation.
Varanasi is absolutely fascinating with its palpable spirituality. Life and death go hand in hand here in a way you don’t normally see in the West. The locals have a very relaxed, even playful attitude towards death. They tied this fake body to a boat in the Ganga to shock tourists. It worked on me. I turned to my fixer to ask him about it and he was already laughing.”
More on Varanasi in later posts…



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