How To Experience Life and Death in Varanasi

Are you planning a trip to India? How would you like to visit a city founded by the god Shiva himself, a city as old as time itself? Here are 5 reasons why you should visit Varanasi:

Banares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together,

-Mark Twain




If it is true that walls have eyes, then the five-thousand-year-old walls of the city of Varanasi have witnessed a lot of history. It is said that this is actually the longest-inhabited city in India and one of the oldest cities of the world! A simple stroll in the narrow lanes of Varanasi can take you back in time as many of the temples and structures are easily over a thousand years old!

The Kashi Vishwanath Temple
The Kashi Vishwanath Temple

Death-Rebirth and Moksha

Varanasi does not drape a veil between life and death: it celebrates both rites with open eyes and arms. The water flowing through the Ganga is considered sacred, and to bathe in the river is to wash away all sin. Hindus believe that humans are stuck in a cycle of death and rebirth and that they must break free of this vicious cycle to attain the final liberation or moksha. Ritual bathing in the holy River Ganga, in the holiest city of all-Varanasi, is thought to bring you closer to the profound concept of moksha.

Bathing in the Ganga river in Varanasi, India
A dip in Ganga to wash away sins

To die in Varanasi is to Attain Moksha

The smoke from hundreds of funeral pyres fill the air day in and day out. But this is no macabre, gothic place. Rather, for Hindus who believe in the cycle of death and reincarnation, Varanasi , also known as Banaras, is the place where they can finally end this cycle and reach moksha, or final liberation.

You can witness a cremation ceremony, any day of the week! The bodies are cremated in ghats on the banks of the river, the most famous of which is called the Manikarnika Ghat. There are many myths around how this sacred ghat was formed. In one, the consort of Lord Shiva, the goddess Annapurna, hid her earrings (Manikarnika means earring) and asked Shiva to find them, thus creating the ghat. In another, Shiva was dancing angrily about a hole in the earth formed by the god Vishnu and dropped an earring. Bodies are laid upon planks of sandalwood and burned to ashes, which are then spread in the Ganga and followed by boats filled with lanterns and prayers of safe passage.

Chittah
Chittah

Did we say death hotels?

People who wish to die in Varanasi can spend the final chapter, or several chapters, of their lives in places like Moksha Bhavan (Salvation House), a gated hotel similar to a hospice center, yet the inhabitants aren’t necessarily sick. Some spend years in these communities, alive but preparing for death in every moment.

The Spectacular Evening Aarti

At sundown, Varanasi comes alive as the ghats (banks) of the River Ganga echo with the holy chants, fire and dances of the evening aarti (prayers). The prayers take place on the town’s most popular ghat, the Dashashwamedh Ghat, and despite the crowds of visitors, hawkers, peddlers and holy men, there is something tranquil about watching the river painted by the hues of sunset in the backdrop of energetic, almost hypnotic chants.

Evening Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat - Varanasi
Evening Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat – varanasi

The Ancient and The Unique

Varanasi Temples
Varanasi Temples

You can visit some really old temples and modern ones, too! Being the most sacred city to Hindus, Varanasi is the home to many temples that honor the Hindu gods and attract many pilgrims seeking moksha. The golden Kashi Vishwanath temple honors Lord Shiva (Lord of the Destruction in Hinduism) and has been referred to in many ancient spiritual texts. It has been destroyed and reconstructed many times throughout India’s history. The Durga Temple, dedicated to the goddess Durga, is stately and bold in its deep red facade. A more modern temple, dedicated to Lord Rama, is called the Tulsi Manas Temple. The Bharat Mata temple, houses a stone map of an undivided India, the only map of its kind.

A Different Kind of Moksha

Sarnath, the site where the Buddha delivered the first Dharma and taught of the four noble truths of the path to enlightenment, is only 30 minutes away. A significant site on the Buddhist pilgrimage trail, Sarnath houses the crumbling remains of several ancient Buddhist monasteries, stupas and temples. Dhamekha or Dhamek Stupa is one such grandiose stupa that was build by an ancient ruler – the revered King Ashoka of the Mauryan dynasty. The Dhamek Stupa and several other Stupas (shrines) were erected by the Mauryans to preserve the calcified bones and other relics of the Buddha and his disciples.

Dhamekh Stupa and ruins in Sarnath, India
Dhamekh Stupa and ruins in Sarnath, India

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About Saffron Dreams

We love India. We want you to experience the best it has to offer.

There are just so many wonderful things to see in India that we always run out of breath and space while listing them. Thousand-year-old temples, tropical forests, buzzing cities, delicious food, luxurious hotels – this is the beginning! Luckily, we know India inside out. We know how to make sure that your trips are full of magical moments while being comfortable at the same time. We'd appreciate the chance to plan the details for your trip..... Read More