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  • August 7, 2014

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.

Picture of a funeral pyre in Varanasi, India
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.

News-Map-Ganges4-v1
  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.

Picture of a funeral pyre in Varanasi, India
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.

Picture of ashes being dumped into the Ganges
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.

Picture of smoke rising from the remnants of a funeral pyre in Varanasi
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?”

Next: Kissing the Bay of Bengal: Celebration, Reverence, and Mystery

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.

There are 31 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Bob Fowles
    October 22, 2014

    Its the day before Devali, and I’ve been on the Ganges at Varanasi both last evening and this morning. Ihave reached a state of emotional saturation from the close experiences of the festival, the rituals, the thousands of people last evening and the rising sun this morning. I am now resting and reflecting, in part by looking at your film, and others. Thank you for helping me understand better my experience. I belive I now understand something of the spirituality that is India. Tomorrow I go to Nepal, somewhat rested, to have placed before me another new dimension to this wonderful world.

  2. B.P.Maiti
    September 12, 2014

    Authentic documentation,Realistic explanations.

  3. Anirudh Singh
    September 9, 2014

    As a citizen of Varanasi, m proud to tell you its one of the oldest city in the world.I can feel the sentiments, being a place of Hindu cremation Manikarnika ghat. It’s all about rituals and receiving moksha.

  4. harshal naik
    September 9, 2014

    @ DEBASREE BANERJEE .. truly scientific reply.. very nice..

  5. Zoe Lugo
    September 7, 2014

    Fantastic.. How these people live their lives.

  6. Balasubramanian A
    September 7, 2014

    As an indian, i can feel the sentiments of the nearby villagers who carry the dead body all the way to Varanasi for the burning, but seeing the half decayed bodies floating on the so called sacred river i feel rather ashamed of spoiling the environement…..,but things go on and on….and on…

  7. Arun Varma
    August 21, 2014

    Pictured and narrated in a respectful way. For people who conduct the rituals there, Its a way of life.

  8. DEBASREE BANERJEE
    August 21, 2014

    Thank you Pete for the beautiful article. It is an entirely unbiased documentary on the topic. Being a Hindu, I would like to explain something first. Fire has several Sanskrit synonyms like Agni, Anal and Pavak. Out of these, Pavak means ‘The Sanctifier’. As a matter of fact, thinking scientifically, cremating and reducing your dead to ashes is actually the best option. What did you do in Florence when Black Death broke out? You burnt the bodies, that’s the only way to potentially destroy all the germs, or most of them anyway.
    Secondly, we believe in the concept of rebirth. We believe that when your near and dear ones are detached enough with your physical remains, your soul also loses its attachment to its former housing. That is the first way to break yourself from the realms of your present birth, and indeed the first step towards ‘moksha’ or ‘nirvana’, as you call it.
    Thirdly, the remains of your sins associated with your physique are supposed to be washed away during the burning.

    Now, coming to other perspectives, all mighty rivers in the country are getting polluted, the Ganga being at the most alarming condition. The reason is evidently its association with various religious activities. Since religion has become the most sensitive issue worldwide that could spark a war, the only step we could take is to control and continue the cleaning process.

    Nevertheless, the article has indeed been very thought-provoking, of spiritual yet scientific importance. Thanks Pete!

  9. Brian
    August 19, 2014

    When we visited Varanasi, we were told that photographing the burning bodies was absolutely forbidden, and that some families had become violent when outsiders tried to record the ritual. Your guide/fixer must have been very convincing.

    They are beautiful pictures, by the way.

  10. Elke
    August 9, 2014

    Death is inevitable and it is going to happen to all of us.

  11. Nunnally jLoveLacz
    August 9, 2014

    both traditional and modernized cremation have advantages and disadvantages. but the most important is their sacred beliefs in death and afterlife. nice and interesting article..!

  12. Mike Barry
    August 9, 2014

    Two years back I visited the temple on the Bagmati river in Kathmandu, Nepal. Similar scenes. Similar sentiments. Of the numerous assaults on all the the senses, the sight of smiles and overall sense of happy occasion (as the person continues on the cycle of death & rebirth) is one of the most vivid.

  13. Meenakshi
    August 8, 2014

    Very well reported. From snow to sea, a great journey indeed. Would like to buy the book if it is published.

  14. Klaus
    August 8, 2014

    Feels vaguely rudel to be filming this.

  15. Liz Rañola
    August 8, 2014

    I have been to Varanasi and have seen a decomposing body floating on Ganges river. It was my first time to see and smell a decomposing body. Two crows were chirping on the skin, and since then have always remind me of this scene whenever I see crows. It was in Varanasi where I realized the country as unpretentious and simple and it’s beautiful as it is and it demands respect. Thank you for sharing your beautiful documentation and the rare photos :)

  16. Aspy
    August 8, 2014

    Pete, you did the right thing and that is all that matters. You will be blessed.

  17. hetat
    August 8, 2014

    I do respect this amazing ritual of death and rebirth. However, I have concern about the pollution may caused long term to the natural environment and habitat.

  18. Vishnu Shriram
    August 8, 2014

    I don’t wish to tarnish the mood of this piece which I do find very touching, but being an Indian and having spent much time by several cities on the banks of the Ganges, I find the river to be appallingly filthy. And the practice of burning bodies by its banks and dumping ash/ bodies is a major culprit. And also, has led to some very unforeseen consequences such as this -http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/india/3163501/Mutant-fish-develops-a-taste-for-human-flesh-in-India.html

  19. anja contreras
    August 8, 2014

    this is so beautiful

  20. Peta Malan
    August 8, 2014

    What a moving story. I’ve been to India myself, and I was totally overwhelmed by the way in which they live life and how they see death. What an beautiful country.

  21. Olga
    August 8, 2014

    Very nice piece. I love Indian culture and am familiar with their practices. It’s important to show restraint and respect when visiting foreign lands.

  22. Haili Li
    August 8, 2014

    My friend told me about the Moksha in Nepal.Nomatter what forms, it is always tremendously sad for the end of lives. 太震撼人心了。如果我死了,我要土葬。

  23. smriti
    August 8, 2014

    Very interesting and nicely described keeping Hindu beliefs in respect. Looking forward for the next step.

  24. Patti Davis
    August 7, 2014

    Very moving piece. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  25. daniel
    August 7, 2014

    planning a similar trip by myself…. would you go there alone??

  26. alley hudson
    August 7, 2014

    I have been to the burning knats in varanasse.. Enlighting experience. Spent 6 months in india. Very colourful and spiritual.. Amazing experience

  27. Pete McBride
    August 7, 2014

    Aspy – I did donate personally. Maybe it went to her pyre, or maybe for food to live another day. I will never know. The woman’s sadness and loneliness was profound and very hard to ignore.

  28. lisa
    August 7, 2014

    thank you, for having the heart to share this with us

  29. Samuel
    August 7, 2014

    Very interesting! I love to hear about different cultures and beliefs.

  30. david mcclure
    August 7, 2014

    pete- very nice piece on varanasi. subtle and respectful tone. nice images.

  31. Aspy
    August 7, 2014

    Just want to know—–ref last para, did you donate any money for —- wood for the woman’s pyre ???

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