Death in Varanasi – ultimate liberation?

Death in Varanasi – ultimate liberation?




A stone I died and rose again a plant;

A plant I died and rose as an animal;

I died an animal and was born a man.

Why should I fear? What have I lost in death?



Photo : River Ganges at Varanasi is the last stop for many.


In the ancient Hindu scripture, Matsya Purana, Lord Shiva says, “Varanasi is my most sacred place, the cause of liberation. All sins, which may have accumulated in thousands of previous lives, disappear if one dies here.”


Varanasi is a city of contrast. Here you can experience, death and life, asceticism and hedonism, all existing side by side.



Photo : Varanasi offers a culture of contrast.


Following age-old tradition, many old people move to Varanasi towards end of their lives. It’s strange but only here can you find hotels that are targeted at the dying enthusiasts. Such establishments have a unique policy, which typically reads : “Welcome to check-in at no cost, but should you not die in a few days, we will ask you to leave.”



Photo : A dying enthusiast at Varanasi.


Then there are Sadhus, the ascetic holy men, having given up material attachment to life, are seen contemplating on banks of river Ganges. It’s hard to read their mind, but some may decide to commit religious suicide by walking into the river. While Hinduism considers the act of suicide as crime that would lead to miserable rebirths, however it is only in Varanasi, that this becomes an act of supreme liberation.



Photo : Sadhus are commonly seen contemplating in Varanasi.

Varanasi is located on the banks of river Ganges, in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India, at about 800 km east of New Delhi. The entire city is built along the western banks of the river. Ganges here has a width of about 200 metres in pre-monsoon but can easily swell to twice the size during monsoon, expanding entirely on the eastern bank.



Photo : Varanasi is on the banks of river Ganges in India.


Along the western bank of Ganges, the ghats are hundreds of areas defined for religious & social gathering. Manikarnika ghat, one of the oldest, is the primary cremation site. Here about 300 bodies are cremated in open air, every day of the year. At any point there would be about 15 pyres burning in the cremation pits. A mere glance can jolt the senses resulting in deep into contemplation. Fixated on the burning pyres, many are seen wondering if there is any meaning to life.


Photo : The ghats of Varanasi along western bank of Ganges.


The cremation process at Manikarnika ghat runs smoothly and efficiently. The constant burning of pyres – nothing short of a production line – requires a regular supply of wood. Logs are brought on boats and then stacked all around the bank in piles several metres high.



Photo : Cremation process at Manikarnika ghat.


Draped in bright red and gold fabric, bodies are brought on wooden stretchers and placed in a queue for their turn to be moved to the cremation pits. Corpses are simply left on the ground, with dogs and cows sniffing the bodies being a common sight. Hired Doms – men from “untouchable” cast, move each body, in turn, to the pits and cover it with about 300 kilograms of wood.


Photo :  Bodies draped in bright fabrics lie around the ghat.


In the small temples along the street above the cremation area, a senior male member of the family of the deceased, changes in a white dress to perform the last rites. After praying, he lights a pile of reeds from the fire pit at the entrance of a temple right behind the cremation area. It is believed this fire has been burning here for thousands of years and was started by Lord Shiva himself.



Photo : Constant supply of wood ensures smooth cremation.


With a burning reed, the nearest to the deceased circles the body a few time and then lights the pyre. As the body starts burning, he fills a clay pot with water from Ganges and throws it on the pyre, over his shoulders. Having performed this act, he breaks the pot by throwing it on the ground. Breaking of the pot signifies an end of the relationship with the deceased person. A body must generally be left on a pyre for about 12 hours in order to burn fully. However at Manikarnika ghat, the queues are long, allowing a maximum of three hours per body.



Photo : Burning the dead lasts just three hours at Manikarnika ghat.


When the time has passed, a man from the Dom community then clears the pit, but first searches the ashes for any gold or silver ornaments with which the body had been ordained before being cremated. Having collected any valuable metals, remains of the semi-burnt body are simply shoveled into the river. Suddenly, the dogs that have been lazing around in the area become active : it is common to see them fight over the bones.


Photo : Dogs wait patiently to feed on next body that surfaces.


The practice of burning the dead does not apply to all Hindus. Since burning the dead is a way of cleansing the soul, holy men, children below the age of twelve and women that were pregnant at the time of death are not cremated, because they are associated with purity. Such a body is wrapped in white cloth, tied to a huge rock, rowed to the middle of the Ganges and dumped overboard to be devoured by fish.


It is not uncommon to also see the bodies of Sadhus (ascetics), who may have committed religious suicide in pursuit of salvation, floating in the gentle currents of the river. Birds can be seen feasting on these floating islands of partially decomposed flesh. Dogs, too, can be seen waiting patiently on the eastern  bank for the bodies that drift ashore.


The phenomenon of death in Varanasi can be deeply unsettling for the faint hearted. I stood at the banks of Manikarnika Ghat, listening to the voice inside me asking, “Is dying in Varanasi a fast track to attaining liberation? Can the entire life’s doing be undone by making this last stop in Varanasi and inviting death with open arms?”



Photo : Observing death in Varanasi can be deeply unsettling.


I was reminded of Saint Kabir, born 1398 AD, who having spent his entire life in Varanasi, decided to leave it in his last days, heading to Maghar, a barren village. About Maghar, it was said that if one dies here, one  will surely be stuck in the wheels of reincarnation, with a chance of being born as a donkey. But Kabir’s message by choosing to die at Maghar and not in Varanasi, was bold and clear : “A hardened sinner will not escape the fires of hell, even if he dies in Varanasi. However a man of virtue, even if he dies in Maghar, will be emancipated.”


Kabir’s bold words, challenging the mundane belief associated with liberation at Varanasi is beautifully reflected in a verse in Adi Granth (spiritual scripture of the Sikhs). 


There is no difference between Benares (Varanasi) and the barren land of Maghar, if He remains enshrined in one’s heart? …. Kabir on page 692 of Adi Granth (The spiritual scripture of the Sikhs)


My experience of Varanasi taught me that it’s not physical but the death of conscience that needs to be feared. As I stood on the eastern bank of Ganges, a marriage procession suddenly emerged. In front of me was the Manikarnika Ghat : on my right, dogs patiently waiting for the next body to surface from; while on my left, a group celebrated the joy of marriage.


Truly, Varanasi is a city of contrast, where death is just a passing event.


Photo : Death & celebration co-exist on the banks of river Ganges.


  1. mintisingh

    While I was going through the script –
    I thought of wtiting about Kabir ji n Maghar – on proceeding found it so beautifully worded that I had praises n praises fr such a soul stirring article. Be Blessed Always. You are the real gem of our family.

  2. sreenivas

    Indeed, any body who views these pictures and read the manuscript would subconsciously engage themselves into some intense introspection. This is particularly true for city folks who are constantly chasing the fast lane to success. Guess, topics such as this will make viewers pause for a while and think, “damn, have i not squandered life this far?”. Keep writing! this is truly a great leveler!

  3. Upinder kaur

    Nice article.
    Good food for soul!

  4. Jaspal Singh Sehdave

    Amazing photography equally worthy of the content and feature!!

  5. Parambir Singh

    Great aricle with perfect pictures…but it is a very confused Varanasi, demeaning the values of death while superstition flourishes in abundance.

  6. The image of the dead man is haunting- what an end to this stormy sea of life !

  7. sarbijt singh

    Nicely written. This again shows how Sikhism as a practical religion and the way of life in the 21st century. Words from Sri Guru Granth Sahib which includes none Sikhs saints like Kabir is the wisdom i seek everytime i read it.

  8. Thomas Bodley

    Very powerful and profoundly moving images and writing on death and liberation in Veranasi. Exceptionally well-done.

  9. Hardip Singh

    Gurus have asked their Sikhs to respect others faith and belief, many times the practicle and rituals free from superstition prevail, the simple and true message from Kabir ji, liberated are those who seeks gods house with a true heart, matters not where you fall on the day of judgement ……


    A article came across after a long time to think and intrude on conscious. Kept it as a gospel of truth.

  11. kiwizian

    Beautiful description. Every sentence is well meaning and balanced. Well done! We all need to know how others respond to a similar situation under universal happenings like death and birth.

  12. Barathan N

    Very interesting article with well written verses and nice pictures. As a hindu I was only taught re-incarnation but didn’t realise that was the Varanasi & Maghar.

    You have opened my eyes and broaden my knowledge on Hinduism. Thank you brother.

  13. Vineet Trakroo

    Nice article and great pics. Captured the true mood of the place

  14. Meena Vathyam

    In death, merely flesh and meat. Such amazing visuals, impossible to avert the gaze!

  15. K.G.Sridharan

    Hindu saints cry hoarse ‘Save Ganga’.How do you do it if half burnt dead bodies in thousands are thrown into it every day?

  16. Sonil Mehra

    Another masterpiece and thought provoking. It transferred me to the quaint streets of Benaras and the Ghats – where death is so common that it taken as a part of daily routine. Every 10 minutes a body is seen in a decked up wooden platform carried by 4 persons (often on hire) heading for the final cremation at the ghats. The cremation is carried 24/7. Your presentation and subject is awesome. May your tribe prosper.

  17. Great Job Sarkar.
    Picture blogging is not so common in India.
    your picture and explanations are just bang on.
    Interesting piece of work.

  18. Thanks a lot uncle for such a beautiful description on death and celebration. it was very enlightning

  19. A beautiful and poignant tribute to the final resting place of the many souls choosing Varanasi. As a Hindu this was a beautiful reminder that in death no matter your caste or circumstance, a true artist can capture your soul through the lens of his camera. Well done, and your sensitivity is to be commended. These are deeply moving photos Amardeep. Best, Stephanie

  20. Karamjeet Singh

    Your message through beautiful photos and thought provoking writing brings out consciousness from the unconcious paradigm of rituals.I am surprised how long this state of ignorance will continue.Scores of Saints and Seers have wetted their ink,Bhagat Kabir and Sikh Gurus have practically showed the futility of seeking physical liberation at holy places.One can liberate at any place and more important is liberation from the Demons of vices while still living.Good Write up on the subject of death.

  21. Darshan Singh Rayat

    Superb photography. Very touching. Simply marvelous. Darshan.

  22. Racchit Thapliyal

    Great article 🙂 While my views on Varanasi differ from yours, I liked reading your perspective on this place never ceases to amaze anyone, positively or negatively.

  23. Gurpartap Singh

    More than pictures, the description itself creates the vivid scenes in the mind of a reader. The underlying message gets delivered in a subtle manner.

  24. Sarabjeet Singh

    What a deal? Keep sinning for your entire life and then die at Varanasi. No problem. All sinners will get liberation. Isn’t it an ”inspiration” to commit sins without fearing its resulls?

  25. Incredible clutch of life & death- the newly borns tiny dainty hand clutching onto mother’s finger & so does a dying man to his attachments n Maya fertilized though his whole life!!

  26. Gurdeep Singh Nidosra

    It’s a deeply written words on a centuries old question about life and death.its strange how rituals stays alive.

Leave a Reply to Thomas Bodley Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *