India: the Hindu ritual of cremation

December 4, 2013
Approaching the funeral pyres by boat

Approaching the funeral pyres by boat

If only the bones of a person should touch the water of the Ganges that personal shall dwell, honored, in heaven.~verse from the Mahabharata

Cremation was unusual and even taboo in the Western world not too long ago, as if we carried our physical bodies along with our souls into the next world.  That’s changed, in part due to the ever-increasing cost of funerals and also a change in spiritual beliefs.  But in the Hindu world, it’s an important practice.

Varanasi –the Ganges River, specifically– is the place all good Hindus hope to die. If they don’t die there, they hope to be cremated on the banks of the Ganges. It’s not unusual to see bodies wrapped in gold shrouds –sometimes silk–being transported atop cars to Varanasi for cremation. Yes, that’s right. On the road. Atop vehicles. Just like cargo.

Pyres from a distance

Pyres from a distance

And if that’s not possible, well, ashes can be scattered there with the same holy effect. The belief is that once cremated here, the soul achieves moksha and ascends straight to heaven without reincarnating.

Getting closer.

Getting closer.

While the caste system is supposedly dying out (so to speak), it’s actually still in effect. Only members of the lowest caste may touch the dead and the head guy, called a Dom, manages the bones and the process, sort of like a Hindu undertaker.  While his job is considered a low caste one, he’s actually the richest guy in Varanasi, we were told, and his palace was impressive.

One night in India we took a boat down the Ganges to the cremation site to view the rituals as practiced by the devout.  Hindus have a chief mourner who lead the ritual. Only men attend cremations and the rituals go on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  The air in Varanasi is smokey. Our guide kept pointing out that there was no bad smell, thanks to essential oils like sandalwood that are used in the ritual. I wore a mask anyway, because the air quality was so bad.

pyres v cu

Yes, bodies burning in public.

After cremation, the bones and ashes of the deceased are thrown in the Ganges. And that’s all that’s supposed to go in the river. But in practicality, that’s not what happens. First, those who can’t afford the large amount of wood required to completely cremate a body leave behind entire body parts. Special snapper turtles that have been taught to consume dead bodies are released into the waters to handle this.  In addition, some categories of people: holy men, pregnant women, those who die of certain diseases or bitten by snakes, children under five and the poor are not allowed cremation. Their bodies can be floated in the Ganges to decompose in the waters.

This is the best video I could get:

Here’s some more video. I’m pretty sure the calling out here was all about positioning the boat.

And more:

If you’d like to learn more about Hindu cremation, go HERE and HERE.



8 comments on “India: the Hindu ritual of cremation
  1. I understood that the Ganges was polluted but I didn’t know about body parts and snapping turtles. Holy Cow- literally.

  2. You certainly did get a lot of cultural insights! Thank you again for sharing your trip stories. Super interesting!

    • admin says:

      And so much more coming! I am also talking with a 15 year old Indian girl who is giving her isnight for a future post. She read the blog… 😉 glad you’re reading along!

  3. lee aldrich says:

    WOW! Even though I have Indian friends I grew up with you have added more detail that I ever knew. Hand NO idea about the turtles! Thanks for a great first hand account! That had to have been fascinating!

  4. megha goel says:

    Thanks for the informative article about the cremation practice in Hinduism. Being a Hindu, i would like to enlighten the readers of your blog that cremation or flowing the ashes in the Ganges is turned auspicious as the river Ganga is considered a holy river which per the legend has come to earth to wash off the evils. Hence cremating the ashes will wash of the bad karma of a person and will prepare him to move to a new life.Varanasi formerly known as Kashi, is the city of Gods wherein Lord Shiva,one of the main Deity in Hinduism resided.So flowing the ashes or cremating in Varanasi is again considered holy and a way to reach God and heaven. I have personally seen a dead body flowing in the Ganges in Varanasi which was quite horrific.I feel this practice of simply disposing the body in the Ganges without proper cremation is wrong and can be dangerous as well. it may very well pollute the water of the Ganges.

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