Burning Ghat: Where You Say Goodbye

Have you been to the burning ghat in India?

We entered Varanasi by overnight train from Delhi. The sleeper class wasn’t the most comfortable, but it safely brought us to Varanasi in 12 hours. We took a desperately needed shower at a guesthouse located right next to a small ghat and had the luxury of taking a nap. Varanasi made me quite excited before I came because of all the exotic scenes. I geared up with my new lens (Nikkor 18-105mm) and entered the famous old city of Varanasi.

After only a few streets away, local people were pointing in a direction and saying “Burning God, that way”. ‘Burning God?’ odd, I thought. The street we stumbled into was ‘Marnikarnika Burning Ghat‘ simply known as ‘burning ghat’. This is the place where people cremate the deceased. We could see the huge pile of wood and big crowd, and huge smoke. Something was definitely going on, most likely a funeral, but I didn’t feel right to be at the place as foreign to the family, and to the culture. A guy wanted to take us to the rooftop of the nearby building to watch the ceremony, but we declined. We went to a few other ghats and went home. So, we almost witnessed the famous ‘burning ghat’.

According to the Rough Guide to India, it is okay to watch the funeral, but absolutely no photography, and be respectful. We decided to try again to visit the burning ghat the next day since watching the funeral is THE thing to do in Varanasi, and in India.

The next day, a group of people was chanting and carrying bamboo structures above their heads in one of the small alleyways. We were eating lassi at a local shop that has been there for 70 years. ‘Maybe they are going to the funeral’, I thought. We were near the burning ghat from yesterday. Just a few minutes later, there was another group of people with the same changing and the bamboo carriage. Only this time, I could see what was on the bamboo.

The body was wrapped in colorful fabric and tied to the bamboo structure.

Three groups of funerals passed, and we followed them. The smell of fire was getting close. Since we knew it was okay to present during the funeral, we looked for a secure spot to stand and observe. Two opposite thoughts in my head were fighting hard. I really wanted to see the important part of the Indian culture, but I didn’t want to see burning dead men, to be honest. I’m not so good at dealing with shocking scenes. My heart was pounding, my leg was moving forward, but my nose refused to smell anything. Once again, I realized ‘I’m not so good dealing with death.’

We saw a narrow staircase leading up to the top of a small building. It was snowing ashes (of wood I hope), halfway up to the top. We found the right place; this was where everything was happening. I felt the strong flam against my chic. I turned my body away from the flame and hid in the corner of the small rooftop. My head was spinning, my heart was pounding so fast, and my curiosity was about to explode. ‘This is it’, I thought, still turning my body away from what was going on.

I slowly turned my head around and squinted at the flame. There they were, three wrapped bodies on the pile of wood, burning. The bodies were still recognizable since the ceremony had just started. They were wrapped tight with fabric, so I could recognize the figure of them. It was one of those moments, that I didn’t want to see but I couldn’t stop looking at it. It was morbid, but the ritual was fascinating. They will be sprinkled on the Ganges after they burn to ashes.

Visiting Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi, India
Visiting Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi, India

The place to witness the circle of life

We mention dead in a casual phrase like “25 places to visit before you die”. We live life only once, and that’s why we have to cherish the opportunities we’ve been given. Watching the cremation without any border, it was clearer, that the circle of life goes around. Mufasa delivered the same message to Simba in Lion King, The Circle of Life. Lions eat herbivores, become earth when they die, grass grows from the earth, and the grass will be eaten by the herbivores. It is the complete circle. As an amateur astronomer, I understand well about the nature. Stars are born millions of years ago from the smallest atom, and they explode at the end of their life. We couldn’t even see the light for years because the Universe is unimaginably big. Less than 100 years of human life is like a dot to this universe, and we are the size of an atom compared to this cosmic world. Just like that, Indians live their life around the Ganges, and they are going back where they came from.

I went to my grandmother’s funeral a few years back and watched the cremation. She was in the coffin, and we got a jar of what was left of her after a few hours. We sprinkled her ashes up in the mountain right near a tree. The whole process was quite sad, but I liked the idea of her living again as a tree. Now we can feel a bit of my grandmother from the living tree.

Maybe that’s how Indians think too. They buried their loved ones in the river Ganges, and they filled their spirit by bathing in the same water.

How to cope with life and death is different in many parts of the world, but the message is always the same: life circles around.

8 thoughts on “Stumble Into Burning Ghat in Varanasi, India”

  1. Wow Juno what a beautiful story. And you are right, we are only a small dot in this sprawling Universe. Beings of light that come full circle and the cycle repeats itself. So we have to make the most of the time we have on this planet. I believe we will see the ones we love again in some spirit form, but for now its best to treat them all with love and thank the spirits that guide us and thank the Universe for the chance we have to make a difference on this planet called earth. And each one of us should not waste this chance.
    We carry the love and the memories within so when we pass on, it is only the body that is returned to the earth. The spirit lives on forever.

  2. Really lovely, Juno, it’s so obvious from your writing that these stirring scenes of life uncensored in India are deeply affecting you. Thank you for sharing your inner thoughts. I really appreciate your sensitivity towards the people and culture of India!

    1. Thanks Mariellen. Glad you enjoyed my write up. It was a sensitive subject, and I really tried not to disturb anyone. But seemed like they’ve been through the same thing with many tourists came through the town. No one really gave us a look. It was a very strong, and important moment of my journey in India. Glad I went there.

  3. Beautiful post Juno! I visited the burning ghats in Kathmandu a few months ago. I grew up in Europe and most people in Europe are Christians or at least raised as Christians. Traditionally people are buried, but it is getting more and more common now to cremate people as well. Funerals are something very private in Europe, so for me it was a bit of a shock to see people being cremated so openly and so close to me too. A lot of poor people can’t afford cremations, so they just throw the bodies of their relatives in the water without cremating them. You can imagine how shocked I was to see a person’s body floating right beside me. It was certainly a very eye-opening experience, but I am glad I witnessed it, as it showed me how other cultures deal with death.

    1. Yes, I’ve been researching more about the burning ghat custom after my experience, and I’ve learned that not everyone could afford the wood. I haven’t seen any body floating down the stream like you did, but I think I avoided that intentionally. The strong flame made the experience more intense.

  4. Lovely post Juno! Thank you for sharing your perspective on India, my homeland. As someone who grew up with all these philosophies this post was very touching.

    1. Thanks Charu, glad you enjoyed it. Varanasi was intense, and made me think about life more. It was a great place to witness Indian culture for sure.

  5. My major in Uni was Comparative Religious Studies with a focus on the Asian religions. So, I studied about the Burning Ghat A LOT. It’s incredible that you were able to experience this in person. I agree with Mariellen Ward, you really impressed me with the sensitivity in which you wrote about the subject!

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