The Pyres of Varanasi: Breaking the Cycle of Death and Rebirth

The Pyres of Varanasi: Breaking the Cycle of Death and Rebirth

One river, 18,000 feet, 1,500 miles. In the fall of 2013, photographer and videographer Pete McBride, along with professional climbers Jake Norton and Dave Morton, followed the Ganges River from snow to sea. All this week, Proof takes you on their 45-day journey—by foot, boat, bike, aircraft, rickshaw, bus, train, and even elephant—as they track every mile of this sacred river.

October 7-12, 2013

When you step off a wooden boat onto the banks of the burning ghat in the oldest of India’s cities and you weave through a maze of funeral pyres hissing, steaming, and spitting orange embers into an inky night and you feel the metronome clang of bells vibrating inside your chest and a wave of furnace-like heat consuming everything in its reach, you realize how removed you truly are from the ritual of death.

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The burning ghat in Varanasi, India’s oldest city, glows as burning pyres continue through the night.

I’ve traveled through international hot spots where life is cheap. I’ve also lost my fair share of friends and family. I don’t feel sheltered from the bony hand of death. But when I stepped on Varanasi’s famous cremation ghat, which runs 24/7, burning hundreds of bodies a day in plain sight, it dawned on me how physically distant most of us are from the departed. In the West, the dead are typically hidden—taken away—either to be beautified for a funeral or to be cremated, depending on beliefs. Either way, bodies are rarely seen again. Some might argue it is civilized, cleaner, or perhaps just emotionally easier. Or maybe it is the modern world’s subtle way of hiding from the inevitable.

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  Maggie Smith, NG Staff

Funeral practices vary worldwide. Of those I’ve witnessed, few are as transparent and raw as the Hindu ritual on the banks of the Ganges River. The Hindu believe that if a deceased’s ashes are laid in the Ganges at Varanasi, their soul will be transported to heaven and escape the cycle of rebirth. In a culture that believes in reincarnation, this concept called moksha is profound. The holier the place, the better the chances you achieve moksha and avoid returning to Earth as a cow or a cricket in your next life.

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Varanasi is the only city in India where pyres burn 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Because the city is believed to be so sacred, the demand for funerals here is high.

Since many believe Varanasi has been inhabited for 5,000 years (which would make it one of the world’s oldest cities), it is considered to be the most sacred of cities on the banks of the Ganges River. People come from all over to pray, collect sacred water, bathe, and yes, attend to their dead. Some even come to die.

Thanks to the peaceful manner of our translator/fixer Madhav, a Hindu monk, our team was given access to document this sacred ritual. Within minutes of arriving, sweat streamed down my face. Teammates Dave Morton and Ashley Mosher filmed next to me. They struggled to breathe in the blasting heat. I could barely even see through my cameras.

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At dawn, a worker dumps the ashes from a funeral pyre into the Ganges. A boat of fresh wood harvested upstream arrives in the background.

At first, something seemed wrong about us being there. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable documenting such private moments. I wanted to ensure we were being respectful as we documented this foreign tradition in a foreign land. Something compelled me to keep looking, to keep shooting. Perhaps it was the simple commonality in it. No matter what we do or believe, none of us gets out alive.

I asked our guide, Raj, who has worked his entire life on the burning ghat, if he ever gets used to the heat.

“What heat?” he joked. “Yes, we do. We help those make the passage at the end. It is beautiful, no? Now let’s go. It is time.”

Raj ushered us back to our boat, past a body shrouded in white cloth and immersed in leaping flames. Between the ring of bells still clanging in my head, I could hear the body hissing. We motored upstream, into the dark of the night, past the Hindu prayer services taking place a hundred yards upstream. I kept sweating the entire boat ride back.

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On the upper deck of Varanasi’s burning ghat, pigeons fly above the steaming ashes and bone fragments of a funeral pyre.

At 4:30 a.m. the next morning, we returned. A blood red sun was rising across the river. Only one pyre was burning. The bells had stopped. Smoke and ash were everywhere and workers meticulously collected human ash and bone fragments to dump into the river. Goats and dogs roamed freely and steam rose from the ground.

As I photographed, a teenage boy started shadowing me. After a few minutes he asked, “Want to see my auntie?” I looked at him confused. He explained that his family was about to cremate his aunt. I looked down on the lower burning deck and saw the boy’s relatives surrounding a body draped in flowers, saying goodbye and offering final prayers. The boy proudly listed off the oils, herbs, flowers, and trinkets that they brought to help his aunt on her journey. He preferred to watch from afar. I told him I was sorry for his loss.

“Thank you but apology not needed,” he said. “She had a good life with much love and she is blessed to reach moksha.”

As I watched the family light the funeral pyre, I thought of our guide Raj’s comments. There was something beautiful about the process unfolding before me—the rawness, the simplicity, the completeness.

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After attending fires all night, workers on the sacred burning ghat take a tea break as another body is prepared for cremation in the background. Burning pyres run 24 hours a day, all year long, just downstream from the bathing ghats in Varanasi.

Like most things in India, though, there is a parallel story. The demand for wood, particularly hard wood, taxes Himalayan forests. Burning one large body can require up to 1,100 pounds of logs. In turn 50 to 60 million trees are consumed annually in India alone. Electric or gas-fired crematoriums have been built but both depend on unreliable energy sources and so most still prefer traditional methods. As the sun continued to rise, I noticed three boats towering with timber coming downstream. Raj pointed out one electrical crematorium nearby. It was closed.

Not everyone can afford the cost of funeral pyres either. Even the cheapest wood is beyond the reach for much of the poor. Many bodies are discarded into the Ganges partially cremated or not at all. Estimates say 100,000 bodies of various cremation levels are tossed into the Ganges each year.

It is not uncommon to see partially decomposed bodies floating downstream. I saw one in the foothills upstream and it stopped me in my tracks. My immediate, naïve response was to contact the police.

By 9 a.m., the Indian sun blazed above the Ganges. Three fires were now burning. My hair was covered in ash and I was pouring sweat again. As I walked through the wood-splitting area, an old woman suddenly emerged from the shadows and held out her hand, the international request for money.

Raj, guiding us out, casually said, “She lives here. Her family left her. She has come to die and needs money for cremation. Want to donate some rupees for her wood?”

The Ganges River expedition was made possible with funding from Microsoft, Eddie Bauer, National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council, Ambuja Cement India, and Hach Hyrdolab. The full expedition team includes photographer and videographer Pete McBride, videographers and professional climbers Jake Norton and Dave Morton, and second camera Ashley Mosher.