In Varanasi, ministering to the dead is a way of life. Situated on the banks of the holy Ganges River, the ancient city is not only a place of pilgrimage but an auspicious place to die. The elderly and the sick arrive from across India to pass their final days praying at the river, in ashrams or on the street, knowing that dying on the banks of the Ganges will speed them through the cycle of rebirths to moksha, or liberation of the soul. Those who don't die in Varanasi desire to be cremated there, or have their ashes scattered at the Ganges River.
Hindus believe a person builds up karma or a culmination of deeds during their lifetime. Karma can be good or bad, and it affects future lives for Hindus. The sect of Hinduism to which Mishra belongs believes that dying a good death in Varanasi forgives bad karma. Even a murderer can achieve moksha here.
Believers and tourists alike, from the world over, want to touch the soil here and bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganga, as the Ganges River is known in Hindi, in an act of purification.
The end of life here is stark and out in the open, for all to see. Bodies blanketed by white shrouds and orange marigolds are brought to the ghats, the broad steps leading down to the Ganga. Funeral pyres, especially at Manikarnika Ghat, the most sacred of cremation places, burn nonstop, about 32.000 bodies per year melting human flesh on piles of mango wood. Sometimes, parts of bodies remain after the flames go out; stray dogs surround the smoldering embers.
Varanasi has always been known as the city of light. But a more appropriate moniker might be the city of death.