• Varanasi Journey Tips Ghats India

What to Expect at the Cremation Ghats In Varanasi

Varanasi (Beneres) is one of the hardest cities in India to travel through, especially alone. It’s in the state Uttar Pradesh and the Holy Ganges runs through, bringing people from all over the world to see the religious ceremonies that take place here.

Varanasi is the most fascinating place I’ve been.

Varanasi Journey Tips Ghats Indiathis is my FAVORITE photo from all my travels. It just makes me smile. Men in India hold hands as friends which I think is a nice sentiment- but catching them holding hands and guns just is SO India!!

It is THE holiest of the 7 Holy cities in India. Death in Varanasi brings Hindus salvation (moksha). This means the cycle of reincarnation ends and you go directly to heaven. I’ve verified that on many many sources, yet when I tell my Indian friends they’re surprised there is a way to end reincarnation. Throughout India’s long history, Buddha, Gandhi and so many other influential people have spent time on the Ganges River in Varanasi. It was considered Lord Shiva’s favorite place.

Varanasi Journey Tips Ghats Indiaa sadhu smoking while tourists watched and donated money to him

Varanasi Journey Tips Ghats India

What to Expect at the Ghats in Varanasi

Nowhere I’ve been and nothing I’ve seen could prepare me for what I’d see in Varanasi. The pollution is intense, the honking is absolutely deafening, and the amount of peole jammed in seems worse the Bombay or Delhi. Unlike the rest of India, it does not seem to be “organized chaos”. The smells of urine in the alleyways is somewhat overwhelming.

Varanasi Journey Tips Ghats India

Varanasi Journey Tips Ghats IndiaComing home after spending time at the ghats I had human ash covering my body and images of bloated bodies in the river. Men get in that same river in their shorts, going for a dip in the most polluted water in the world while I’d look over my shoulder and see teenagers taking selfies with their deceased grandma… who was just carried over the heads of people in bike rickshaws through the streets of Varanasi.

Varanasi Journey Tips Ghats Indiaa holy man covered in ashes and his dogs

Only 29% of people are employed in Varanasi, making it one of the hardest places to prevent scamming in India. Like I mentioned before, a friend was pickpocketed. The rickshaw drivers here were some of the hardest to deal with in all of India.

Like much of India, Varanasi is a contradiction: spiritual and disheartening, exciting yet frightening, and beautiful yet absolutely filthy.

Varanasi Journey Tips Ghats Indiarowing a boat down the Ganga at night (100 rupees per person fee)

Varanasi has 84 Ghats (places with steps down) along the river. Some of which are used for cremation: Dashashwamedh, Manikarnika, and Panchganga. Others are used for washing clothes and bathing (needless to say, I did my laundry by hand in my room).

I didn’t stay at the Ghats long. They were hard to be around for me, although I suppose if you are Hindu and used to seeing cremations then you may find peace in this place. The ceremonies are really neat and the poojas offered can be over the top beautiful. The wood is expensive for families and many touts will beg for wood money or to give you a tour. Seeing bodies dipped in the river, and lit on fire, and watching them with a crowd is… well indescribable. Not a place that shows sadness; instead all over the Ghats people are having a party.

Varanasi Journey Tips Ghats India

Varanasi Journey Tips Ghats India

Varanasi Journey Tips Ghats India

Varanasi Journey Tips Ghats Indiain this last photo, you can see the haircut of Brahmin children

I’ll share some things Indian friends have taught me: Not all people can be allowed to burn along the river. Some are too holy (babies, pregnant women) and some not holy enough (prostitutes). They still go in the river, but are just thrown with weights tied on… their bodies eventually float up and boat drivers take people out on sunrise tours guaranteeing you’ll see a body. I didn’t want to, so I skipped the tour. I felt a little sick about it. I had been warned dogs eat what washes up on the shores (which really scared Sophie when a dog bit her), and I made sure to look away when I saw dogs eating alone the edges as it was very clear what they had a piece of.

80 people are cremated per day on the Ganga in Varanasi.

Along the edges of the river are people having a fun night out, Sadhus smoking with crowds watching, multiple religious ceremonies, and street vendors selling food and crafts. Beware of the touts who were a little rude here.

Do NOT take your camera! The fact they even allow tourists to watch such a personal time in their lives is incredible so don’t offend them by taking photos of the actual cremations.

It’s interesting, but as an outsider with little understanding and insight, I felt a little uncomfortable and like an invader. It would be best not to go here alone or you might feel too out of place.

Varanasi Journey Tips Ghats India

We did take a boat tour at night to see the lights from the river which was pretty neat and a nice end to a LONG day. I have loved sharing about this holy place because it’s one of my favorite cities in India, only because it’s so intense and interesting, lastly; a list of Tips for Varanasi. I stayed for 3 days in Varanasi before taking a train to Delhi (just to catch a cheap flight to Goa).

 

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2016-10-13T10:07:12+00:00

About the Author:

Rachel Jones left a career in nursing and lived on the beaches of Goa, India for the five years. Now she lives in Mexico where she gives advice on the 40+ countries she’s visited in the last 10 years. She’s the author of two India travel e-books: Guide to India and Insider’s Guide to Goa. Her blog, Werkenntwen, like its name, is a contradiction combining off-beat adventurous places with glamorous and bespoke travel. Werkenntwen has been featured in ELLE, Marie Claire, Grazia, and Cosmopolitan magazines. She’s a writer for Bravo TV.

41 Comments

  1. Jo August 12, 2014 at 7:15 am - Reply

    Wow, Varanasi sounds so intense. I’m not sure I could handle seeing the bodies and the dogs eating them. It sounds like a fascinating but (emotionally) difficult place to visit. If I do India, it would probably be with a tour, but looking forward to your tips for Varanasi nonetheless!

    • Rachel Jones August 12, 2014 at 12:17 pm - Reply

      Thanks Jo! There are some great tours throughout India so there really are options for everyone.

  2. Empty Rucksack August 12, 2014 at 7:50 am - Reply

    Today’s headline says all ghats are flooded, cremations are taking place at roof tops :P

  3. Kendra (the Escapologist) August 12, 2014 at 9:08 am - Reply

    Wow, that seems like it might be too intense for me! I love that picture of the men holding hands….and guns!

  4. Justine August 12, 2014 at 9:12 am - Reply

    I’ve seen so many documentaries and news accounts of the cremations in Varanasi . I can’t imagine actually being there. I’m not sure how I would handle it. Culturally, I would love to experience it. But emotionally I think I would have a lot of difficulty. Did you find it hard to get the images of bodies out of your head? Or did the spiritual side of the ceremony make it more bearable?

    • Rachel Jones August 12, 2014 at 12:12 pm - Reply

      Actually, emotionally it wasn’t that bad for me because of my nursing experience- I’ve had to put bodies into bags after death, so this was more a cultural interesting thing to see than once which freaked me out.

  5. Veronika August 12, 2014 at 9:55 am - Reply

    Oh Rachel, wow, this sounds like a wild intensive experience.. Great to read about it! I’m not sure if I’ll ever make it to these Ghats, but your post gives a big insight into how it looks&feels like. Thanks!

    • Rachel Jones August 12, 2014 at 12:10 pm - Reply

      It’s the coolest city in the world for sure- I’m glad you enjoyed reading about it.

  6. JJ De Niro August 12, 2014 at 10:09 am - Reply

    What an interesting view on death, I’m sure that was an experience with images that will remain with you for life! Thanks for sharing; I would have had no idea. Great photographs too…

    • Rachel Jones August 12, 2014 at 12:10 pm - Reply

      Thank you, and yes it’s something I won’t forget.

  7. Ashley August 12, 2014 at 10:43 am - Reply

    Wow, I don’t know if I could handle seeing floating bodies, but it does sound like such an interesting place!

    • Rachel Jones August 12, 2014 at 12:09 pm - Reply

      It really is interesting and you can avoid seeing those things if you just see the Ghats for a small amount of time. just a peak then leave!

  8. Laura August 12, 2014 at 11:00 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing this insight. I have heard a lot about people’s experiences in Varanasi, but it’s nice to know some facts about what happens as well as your side of things.

  9. Greg | Journey Blue Book August 13, 2014 at 6:27 am - Reply

    Wonderful work here. I actually work in the funeral industry in the US, so being able to see such a ceremony in India would be very enlightening. The city itself looks pretty intense, and I’m sure that it is even more so when you add the sights and smells in person. Great post!

    • Rachel Jones August 13, 2014 at 12:22 pm - Reply

      Wow that would be really interesting for you! Thanks for reading!!

  10. Zoe @ Tales from over the Horizon August 13, 2014 at 7:29 am - Reply

    It sounds like such an amazing city, somewhere truly unique. Thanks for posting.

  11. Yara Coelho August 13, 2014 at 10:05 am - Reply

    Rachel, this very honest and realistic post took me back to India, which means, my stomach got upside down again.

    India is an intense country an Varanasi is probably the most intense city in the country After 5 months traveling through the Indian sub-continent I decided to slip Varanasi an take some vacation from my Indian vacation in Nepal. I don’t regret I skipped it…

    • Rachel Jones August 13, 2014 at 12:27 pm - Reply

      Thanks Yara. It’s really a tough place even after being in India a while. I have to say, it’s one of my favorites just for sheer shock value- it really is the craziest place I’ve been and I’d go back, but I can’t imagine living there or staying long term.

  12. Yara Coelho August 13, 2014 at 10:06 am - Reply

    … I’m waiting for the next post though :)

  13. Agness August 13, 2014 at 12:35 pm - Reply

    Hospitable locals – that’s all I need! Awesome place!!

  14. Karisa @ Flirting with the Globe August 14, 2014 at 1:07 pm - Reply

    wow! very interesting read! I’ll have to put this on my list for my next trip to India! :)

  15. Alana - Paper Planes August 14, 2014 at 6:26 pm - Reply

    When I went to India several years ago Varanasi was our second stop after being in the country about 48 hours…it was intense! But also, looking back on the entire trip, one of the highlights.Great post!

    • Rachel Jones August 15, 2014 at 12:47 pm - Reply

      wow, second stop- that would have been intense! It was one of my highlights too.

  16. Victoria August 16, 2014 at 8:14 pm - Reply

    Yeah, Varanasi is an incredible place that fills you with equal intrigue and equal disgust!
    You are right Rachel. It is believed that if you die in Varanasi, the incarnation phase will be complete i.e. no more life changing cycles. You will then go (hopefully), to heaven.

    Yeah, I spent a few days in Varanasi, and it’s crazy. You always have to be on your guard for the water, avert your eyes ‘cos of the nudeness, watch the dogs, the pigs, your pocket, the urine, and the poo!
    Would I recommend it? Absolutely!

    • Rachel Jones August 17, 2014 at 9:30 am - Reply

      You’re exactly write -intrigue and disgust for sure. It was one of my favorite places!

  17. Glamourous Journeyler August 18, 2014 at 9:46 pm - Reply

    Amazing read, and I love that photo of the policemen! =) I’m actually thinking about heading down to Varanasi this Dec, so your website has been a great help. Though I fluctuate between thinking how easy or difficult it would be to travel to and around.

    I loved my time in Mumbai, Udaipur and Jaipur but really didn’t enjoy Delhi =S But I must say your stories make me want to see it even more!

    • Rachel Jones August 19, 2014 at 4:16 am - Reply

      Delhi was my least favorite place for sure!! But each day in India is different.. sometimes you’ll think it’s easy to get around and other days you’ll wanna scream.

  18. Miguel August 19, 2014 at 7:14 pm - Reply

    This is one of the most interesting posts I’ve read about India. Powerful words and honest observations. :)

  19. Alexander January 11, 2015 at 10:39 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the nice post and amazing pic of the military guys holding hands!
    Last time I was in India I spent 9 month living in Varanasi – eventually had to escape because the place is too intense, especially if you don’t use substances like me :)
    The Naga sadhu with long hair in the picture on the left is Shiv Raj Giri Baba – I have spent four days with him while visiting Varanasi for the first time in 2007. Actually he is from Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.

    • Rachel Jones January 12, 2015 at 1:47 pm - Reply

      I love that military pic! I can’t imagine living in Varanasi, props to you

  20. Ankita Phalle June 25, 2016 at 6:10 pm - Reply

    Hi Rachel,

    Love the post this post as well as the 20 tips for Varanasi.
    Can you tell me the ideal number of days to spend in Varanasi and what other places do you suggest in case I’m solo backpacking in the Varanasi- Allahabad stretch for about 8-10 days in November?

    • Rachel Jones June 26, 2016 at 5:09 am - Reply

      Hi Ankita, I haven’t explored that area in depth that I could help with that much time there. Two days in Varanassi was definitely enough for me!

  21. Francesco Cunsolo July 26, 2016 at 6:12 am - Reply

    Varanasi is birthplace of Hindu, Jans and Buddha, one the world’s great holy cities. With festivals and parades every night , crowds are truly madding, but I loved it

  22. Faylinn August 9, 2016 at 5:52 pm - Reply

    I have been to India a few times, but I honestly never heard about the cremation that is done on the Ganga. I think that it is particularly interesting that both those who are holy and not holy enough are not allowed to burn there. However, why is it that the holy still get thrown in the river if they are not cremated? I think that I could understand it if it was the prostitutes who that happened to, but babies and pregnant women?

  23. […] where to stay, how to get there, and how terrible it went for me at first. I also told you what to expect at the Ghats, which can be an overwhelming place. Now here are 20 random but important travel tips for Varanasi […]

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