Along the bank of the river Ganges, in northern India, lies the congested and overpopulated city of death, penance, liberation and spiritualism. Varanasi (pronounced Banaras locally) is a land of miracles, legends, mysticism and madness where people often visit to die. This ancient city, also called Kashi, has cemented its legacy in various epics and folk tales and attained spiritual glory.
The holiest city in the country, people often traverse miles to atone for their sins. Legend says that the five protagonist brothers from the Indian epic, Mahabharata journeyed to Kashi after their triumph at the Kurukshetra war to atone for the death and destruction caused by their wartime fury. The idea of seeking moksha (liberation) has, ever since, been an integral part of journeying through Varanasi. According to various Hindu scriptures, dying in Varanasi is a blessing as the holy water of the Ganges, now contaminated with industrial waste and smells of pure filth, will help break the cycle of rebirth and allow the dead to attain liberation.
Famously, Varanasi is celebrated for the abundance of ‘ghats’. Ghats usually refer to the steps near the riverfront that lead to the base of the river. With 88 ghats in existence, most of them serve ritualistic or bathing purposes. However, the two most popular ghats in the city, Manikarnika and Harishchandra, exclusively serve as cremation grounds where flames engulf the air all day and night as the funeral pyre never ceases to burn. Across oral folk tales, various legends related to Lord Shiva have been associated with the ghats, besides real-life history that enshrouds the city.
Manikarnika, in particular, has been the focal point of unusual and macabre death tourism. Tourists from all across the globe flock here to experience the bizarre and fascinating cremation rituals. While photography is not permitted, most people stand on the edges of their boats to witness the routine ceremony. Stacks of wood adorn the ghats as the dead body is dipped in the water and then burned on the pyre.
Unsurprisingly, various people come to die in Kashi and reside in the infamous Mumukshu Bhavan. In Sanskrit, Mumukshu roughly translates to those searching for liberation, salvation and penance. These people seek shelter in these lodges for an indefinite period until they die. They prefer to lodge those who are desperate to leave their lonely existence. However, the Mumukshu Bhavan does not permit people below 60 to reside within these walls. The people spend their days chanting prayers and hymns and waiting patiently to embrace death. They no longer fear death but end up celebrating it.
This holy city is also celebrated for being the hub of the holy men of the country who assemble to seek blessings from Lord Vishwanath (another name for Shiva) from the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Tourists and Kashivashis (people of Varanasi) alike, the Dashashwamedh Ghat becomes a significant source of attraction for its evening prayers, also called ‘aarti’. The brilliant hues of golden fire and the sound of bells and percussion fills the city air with a strange sense of spirituality. And it is on this ghat that some of the fascinating ascetics from the country can be seen. The ghats of Varanasi are a cesspool of such holy men who belong to various sects and cults and have different names, including ‘Aghori’, ‘sanyasi marvadi’, ‘Shaiva sadhu’, ‘Vaishnava sadhu’ and more. Bizarre and oddly enigmatic, they are living epitomes of salvation, detachment and transcendentalism.
The most enchanting of all these ascetics are the aghoris, known for their peculiar lifestyles. From having intercourse with dead bodies that they consider to be purer compared to those alive to feeding on human flesh and meditating on corpses, the aghoris also use the human oil from funeral pyres for medicinal purposes and slather their naked bodies with ashes. While these aghoris mainly reside in remote forests, they are seen exclusively on the ghats of Varanasi, absorbed in their mysterious hymns and prayers. Often associated with dark magic, the surrealism surrounding the aghoris works entirely in tandem with the other-worldly, ethereal atmosphere of the city whose air smells of death, sandalwood and piety.
One of the most popular tourist destinations in the country with perhaps the highest foreign footfall, Varanasi is the hub of death tourism. Nestled within the pillars of sanctity, spiritual awakening and rituals, the city, steeped in legends and myths, has a sinister and paradoxical smell of darkness, woeful despair and salvation.