Dying the good death
Varanasi has a deep and lingering association with death, it is possibly the most famous aspect of the city. The end of life is generally marked by grieving, but in Kashi (the old name for Varanasi) death is celebrated alongside life, the world whirling around the dead.
Death takes on different forms – as spectacle, cremations, ancestor worship, as ashrams and hotels for people looking to die in Varanasi, for the promised liberation, as biers dressed in gold, are carried through the streets with chants of Ram’s name being the only truth.
To wish someone dead in Varanasi is taken to mean the opposite of that wish. If a traveller dies in the city, the common refrain is not of sadness, but that they were fortunate. Unlike other Indian cities where cremation grounds are seen as inauspicious, and located on the outskirts, in Varanasi, the two sites for cremation are thronged by tourists.
Manikarnika ghat, the larger and busier of the two burning ghats, is located right at the centre of the stretch along the river Ganga – the proverbial navel of the city. According to the city's mythology, all creation was birthed here and at the end of time the corpse of creation will burn here too. In Hindu belief, the shedding of tears hinders the passage of the soul; a show of grief is ritually anathema. The experience for most visitors is meditative, not sentimental. Those involved in the business of cremation often say how you won’t feel grief here, that this place is beyond rules, that liberation here is not just for the dead, but for the land itself.