Warning: Because this entry discusses cremation in fairly vivid detail, it may not be for everyone.
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Varanasi is to Hindus as Mecca is to Muslims or the Vatican is to Catholics: many of the religion’s most devout spend a lifetime planning and saving for the visit they hope to someday pay to the holy city.  A journey to Varanasi is of specific significance: dying here is said to liberate Hindus from the endless birth-death cycle attendant to the repeated reincarnation in which they believe.  Although it was once named Kashi, or “city of life,” Varanasi is a town where many people come to die.
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The Ganges runs through Varanasi, and many of the dead are cremated on the wide steps (or “ghats”) that lead to the water.  Some ghats, known as “burning ghats,” are used specifically for this purpose, and it was at one of these that Derek and I witnessed the many stages of a Hindu cremation.  We watched dead bodies swathed in brightly colored cloth being carried through Varanasi’s narrow alleyways and down to the river, where they were doused in the holy waters and then placed upon a pyre fed with wood and fuel.  Upon incineration, societal outcasts employed specifically for funereal purposes threw the ashes into the Ganges’s slow-moving current.  In the case of holy men and children, we learned, the cremation process is bypassed entirely in favor of throwing the bodies directly into the river.  I guess it goes without saying that we found the whole process fairly overwhelming.  Still, we were glad to play witness to this most holy of practices.
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Varanasi seems to be a place better observed than toured.  Rather that visiting every site that our guidebook recommended, we spent our time wandering the city’s ghats, exploring its streets and taking in the life along its riverbanks during an early-morning boat ride.  Like so much of India, Varanasi is equal parts chaos and vibrancy–a photographer’s dream and a place where we felt very lucky to spend a few days.

Varanasi Video