Is Varanasi the 'City of the Dead' or the 'City of Life and Enlightenment'?

Morbid was the first word that came to my mind when I saw the promo of CNN's episode on Varanasi, for their popular program on world faiths - Believer. I wasn't offended by what I saw because the visuals were not untrue and I had also seen it on my first visit to the city, when I was more curious to see the famous Manikarnika Ghat than take a holy dip in Ganges to wash of all my sins. I did visit the Ghat a couple of times and was reduced to tears on my second visit - both by the constant wailing of the loved ones who had come to say their last goodbyes, as well as the abject apathy showed to the corpses such were pushed into the river even before they were completely burnt.

So is there anything wrong with the show? Well, maybe I am jumping the gun even before the show is aired, I found something not quite right about the narrative. And more importantly with branding Varanasi as the City of the Dead. In all my visits there as well as books and articles I have read about it, this term has never come to my notice. So what's their source of information?

Anyway, without any further do, here are the two clips which are currently burning the internet.

In fact, if anything, Varanasi is the City of life, or the City of Light. Yes it's a place where people come from all over to breathe their last, but immersing the ashes in the river is actually the beginning of a new life. Hindus believe in reincarnation, and the process starts from leaving your mortal remains behind and then giving a new life. There is nothing morbid about death here, it's part of the cycle of life, or Kalchakra as well call it.

Only to someone who makes a transient visit and makes a superficial observation, would the city appear to be related to death. For anyone willing to dig deeper and explore the meaning of life and death, and how one leads to the other, Varanasi would be a city is spirituality, knowledge and enlightenment. The choice is in our hands, and what we chose to see.

Varanasi Things to do morning meditate boy male man young ghats
A young boy meditating on Varanasi ghat

I will wait to see the show to decide if I read too much from the promos, but I would also like to give the makers of the show the creative and intellectual freedom to present their version anyway. Maybe they will persuade me to open up my own mind and think widely, or maybe I will disagree. However, here should be space for both the narratives to exist, unless the agenda is something else completely, as some tweets suggest, though personally I don't think that's the case.

Most other media outlets have also slammed the show for being misinformed, racist and more. Here is a very well written and a strong article from Huffpost: Cannibals and Corpses: CNN’s Believer is Reckless, Racist and Dangerously Anti-Immigrant.

The other side of the story
However, the story won't be complete if we don't hear the other point of view. Reza Aslan, the host of the show, talks to Vogue in detail about the show and some of his unusual experiences.

He says about the show, “it’s a show about religion in the same way that Anthony Bourdain’s show is a show about food. It’s not really about food, and it’s not really about religion.”

So what does social media say about this?
The opinion on Twitter is certainly against the show and it's host, though most responses are also from us Indians. Here are some:

Though, of course, not everyone was as angry as most.

What are your thoughts on this? Leave your comments below! 


  1. Hey,
    Just wanted to reach out to say “thanks” for publishing such a great and inspiring article.

  2. varanshi is the worship placed also colorful place all time, In Holi days varansi is become colorful palace. like pictures

  3. What a westerner understands about hindu religion and faiths after all media should not hurt the mass just for money making

  4. Great to read about Varanasi. Amazing.
    Awesome pics. Thanks for the informative post.

  5. Thank you for such contain.

  6. that's a inspirational article and tell about the Varanasi ,that is the city of life and light .thanks for the information from the article and it is helpful

  7. Your site has a lot of useful information for myself. I visit regularly. Hope to have more quality items.

  8. varanasi is the best place for peace education in world,we can know about Sanatan Dharam||||


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