Mark Twain once described the city of Varanasi as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, And looks twice as old as all of them put together”. And for good reason, as it is estimated that Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, at approximately 3,000 years. Situated in Northeast India, Varanasi is truly surreal, and is the holiest city in the entire Hindu world; it comes as no surprise that Varanasi is the most popular pilgrimage point for Hindu people. If you are a Hindu, Varanasi is the ideal place to die, and those who are lucky enough to die and be cremated are awarded an instant gateway to heaven.
The ancient Hindu ritual for the dead in Varanasi has to be seen to be believed; each body is covered decoratively and carried down through Varanasi’s narrow passages, bypassing numerous cows and preachers to be soaked in the holiness of the Ganges River, at which time prayers are repeated. The decorations are removed and the body is left shrouded in linen, and family members place the body on a pyre (known as a ghat) for it to be burned in order to reach the afterlife. Once the body is almost fully burned, a bamboo pole is used to pierce the skull to allow the deceased’s spirit to go free. This custom is repeated over 300 times per day, and is freely available to the tourist gaze, although no photos are allowed to be taken. Such a ritual, however, is not repeated for all; people killed by snakes, those who have died of leprosy, young children, pregnant women and the poor are not included. Rather, their bodies are set free into the Ganges to decompose there.