The smoke is thick around the public funeral ground. Eyes are stinging, and the air is heavy with the smells of burning wood, incense, and – somewhat disturbingly – an aroma described as being like barbecuing meat. Piles of wood smoulder and burn along the riverbanks, occasionally poked by men or boys with sticks in order to keep them alight. Here and there, jutting from the stacked lots, you can make out a human limb or head of one of the departed – their soul believed to be on its way to heaven. This is not a place for the squeamish.
Varanasi’s ghats are large stone steps constructed along the banks of India’s holy river, the Ganges. For centuries, people have been coming here to pray, meditate, bathe and, famously, cremate their dead. Despite the ancient and sacred character of the place, however, visitors to these steps should expect more of a jostling market atmosphere than a place for quiet contemplation. The larger of the burning ghats, Manikarnika, is believed to host around 200 cremations in a single day.
The funeral ghats of Varanasi are well known – which some might say is fortunate, given that stumbling unexpectedly across a human body burning on top of a pile of logs would come as rather a shock to the unsuspecting! Most visitors are not only aware of what goes on here; many come especially to observe this ancient ritual – whether out of cultural curiosity or mere morbid fascination.