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Tourisme noir ou sombre tourisme ?

Beyond the Shades of Darkness

A Case Study of Varanasi, India
Nitasha SHARMA


Dark tourism scholarship, so far, has mostly confined itself to European interpretations of rituals and death. This study aims at analyzing the phenomenon of dark tourism in the context of a non-Western and religious setting in India focusing specifically on tourist interest and perceptions. The study focuses upon two types of Hindu death-related rituals performed at the cremation grounds and attempts to understand how travelling to religious sites and witnessing “live” events of death can fall under the broad context of dark tourism, and how the different meanings associated by tourists form paradoxes and ambiguities that existing dark tourism scholarship fails to address adequately.

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1The term “Dark Tourism” was first coined by John Lennon and Malcolm Foley in 1996 and later on used in 2000, when they published a book on “death-related” tourism cases. In simple terms, it can be understood as the act of travel to sites that are somehow associated with death, suffering, and tragedy. The usage of the term “dark” in dark tourism literature is a rather contentious one in terms of classifying a tourist site or an experience. For instance, Tazim Jamal and Linda Lelo (2011) argue that the notion of darkness is a socially constructed rather than an objective fact constructed by some tourist scholars. There are several classification frameworks available for dark tourism (Sharpley, 2005; Stone, 2006; Dunkley et al., 2007) which do not adequately address questions as to how a place can draw veneration and voyeurism at the same time, or what constitutes an “authentic” dark experience. Also dark tourism has not addressed sufficiently the case of witnessing “live” deaths of others as opposed to the vast literature that exists with respect to the commemoration of past deaths. This is something that Erik Cohen (2009) also points out when he writes about the death of tourists in the course of their trip being a completely unexplored topic in thanatourism.

2This study attempts to understand the convergence of pilgrimage and death, how travelling to religious sites and witnessing “live” events of death can also fall under the broad context of dark tourism, and how these religious sites exhibit “darkness.” Firstly, dark tourism scholarship, so far, has mostly confined itself to European interpretations of rituals and death. This study aims to transcend previous barriers by analyzing the phenomenon of dark tourism in the context of a non-Western and religious setting in India. Secondly, although religious/spiritual tourism has been included in the broader discussions of dark tourism literature, the forms of discussion until now have limited themselves mostly to traditional forms of worship (such as visits to cathedrals or battlefields as a form of modern “pilgrimage”) in a Western context and have focused more upon memory and heritage. Few scholars have actually tried to interrogate the meaning of the term “dark” in the context of religious pilgrimage, and academic research in terms of unravelling the tourist experience and motivations at such sites remains sparse. Noga Collins-Kreiner (2015) states that pilgrimage and dark tourism and an analysis of the relationship between the two categories reveal similarities in terms of supply and demand aspects and site development. Thirdly, the classification frameworks that exist in dark tourism literature (Seaton, 1999; Lennon and Foley, 2000; Strange and Kempa, 2003; Sharpley, 2005; Dunkley et al., 2007) offer little scope to understand a complex site such as Varanasi and yet, the nature of tourism at the cremation grounds conforms to the broader definition of dark tourism. In 2006, Philip Stone presented a dark tourism spectrum that suggests a “darker-lighter tourism paradigm” representing the different “shades” of dark tourism (Stone, 2006; 2009) (figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1

A Dark Tourism Spectrum: Perceived Product Features of Dark Tourism Within a “Darkest-Lightest” Framework of Supply

Source: excerpt from Stone, “A Dark Tourism Spectrum: Towards a Typology of Death…,” p. 151.

3Stone’s spectrum shows the differences between actual sites of dark tourism and sites that are associated with dark tourism. “The Darkest” sites have location authenticity in the sense that they are situated on the spot or are close to the place of death. “The Darkest” sites also have higher political influence and ideology compared to the sites at the lighter end of the spectrum, and the darker sites provide limited tourism infrastructure. Stone also argues that “visits to dark tourism sites or attractions in more exotic destinations, such as the ‘burning ghats’ at Varanasi in India or the ‘killing fields’ of Cambodia may be motivated more by the potential status of having visited such locations rather than by any specific fascination with death” (Sharpley and Stone, 2009: 19), thereby assuming that religious sites such as Varanasi may not qualify as dark tourism sites. However, this might not be true because there are several tourist narratives that indicate multiple interpretations of the site (other than religious). It does not imply that these classification systems are not useful, but such rigid categorizations fail to capture the complexity or multi-faceted nature of religious sites. Moreover, as stated by Collins-Kreiner (2015), dark tourism focuses primarily on the death of individuals and groups from the perspective of supply, and secular pilgrimage is also typically related to sites of death and disaster.

4In this paper, I argue that pilgrimage to sacred sites and ancient places within the context of dark tourism has more to offer in terms of understanding the process of meaning-making by tourists. These places represent “a socially constructed site or location in space marked by identification or emotional investment” (Barker, 2003: 40) and hence are significant in the construction of multiple narratives. I use the example of a religious site in India, named Varanasi, to address the following questions:

  • Does a pilgrimage site such as Varanasi display aspects of dark tourism?

  • How do the different meanings associated by tourists who visit this site form paradoxes and ambiguities that existing dark tourism scholarship fails to include or address adequately?

5In this study, I address the aforesaid questions, focusing specifically on the death-related rituals at the city of Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh, in India (figure 2). Varanasi, according to Hindu belief, is considered as a holy city in India and attracts scores of both domestic and foreign tourists. Situated on the banks of the Ganga River, it is known as the “Great Cremation Ground” (Eck, 1983: 30), “Kashi, the luminous,” “the Ancient Crossing,” the “City of Death,” or the “Microcosm of the Universe” (Parry, 1994: 11). It is one of those religious sites where life and death co-exist and where multiple feelings are interspersed in a sacred landscape.

6The death rituals in Varanasi form an integral component of this paper because these rituals contribute to generating multiple meanings from the site, which dark tourism classification frameworks fail to address. Although formally labelled as a Hindu pilgrimage destination, the city has spaces of death in the form of cremation grounds, and no one has yet analyzed how this experience of encountering death fits into the overall religious experience. The tourist interest in the death-related rituals is supported by the fact that several privately owned tour companies and operators are increasingly offering “walking tours” that provide opportunities for tourists to witness the cremation grounds, popularly referred to as the “Burning Ghats” (figure 3), and meet a group of esoteric Hindu ascetics known as the Aghoris. A few examples include the “Learning and Burning Walk” offered by the agency Groovy Tours and Travels, the “Rebirth in Banaras Walk” offered by the Varanasi Walks tour agency, and the “Ghats and Cremation” tour offered by Manglam Travels, a tour operator. Further, a content analysis study of tourist reviews of a major tourist website,, has revealed that the words “death,” “dying,” and “cremation” appeared more often than the words “religion and philosophy” (Werdler, 2015). Thus, 80% of the reviews mentioned elements of death and dying in accordance with the definition of dark tourism. Although such a small sample of tourist reviews on social media is insufficient to claim that Varanasi is exclusively a dark tourism site, it nevertheless points towards the fact that a popular pilgrimage destination has a darker side to it with international tourists displaying an inexplicable interest in death and a curiosity about watching the morbid.

Theoretical Concepts

7The arguments in this paper are supported by theories pertaining to the notions of place, sacredness, and authenticity in tourism literature. Margaret C. Rodman (2003: 12) examines an anthropological notion of place and introduces the term “multilocality,” which says that a single physical landscape can have multiple meanings for different users. I also draw from Belden Lane’s (1988) axioms on sacred place, one of which states that “a sacred place is an ordinary place, ritually made extraordinary.” I borrow the definition of ritual from Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure, which says that “a ritual is a stereotyped sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and designed to influence preternatural entities or forces on behalf of the actors’ goals and interests” (1977: 183). The death rituals in Varanasi conform to Turner’s definition in that they possess a uniform pattern drawn from the Vedas (ancient sacred Hindu text) and they involve a sequence of words, chanting, and prayers performed at a particular place. I also use theories on authenticity in tourism literature to elucidate the ambiguities associated in labelling a site as authentic or inauthentic. For example, Dean MacCannell (1976) writes that authenticity serves as an important motivation in tourism. Edward M. Bruner (1991) describes tourists’ desire for self-transformation through an encounter with cultures that are authentic, and Gianna M. Moscardo and Philip L. Pearce (1986) believe that satisfaction derived from a tour depends on the tourists’ search for authenticity. Carol J. Steiner and Yvette Reisinger (2006) prefer existential authenticity over object-oriented forms of authenticity, while Peter L. Berger (1973) says that existential authenticity is a special state of being in which one is true to oneself and acts this way as opposed to becoming lost in public roles and public spheres. Authenticity in tourism can be further classified into objective, constructive, and existential authenticity where objective authenticity involves an objective museum-linked usage of the authenticity of the originals (or staged authenticity); constructive authenticity being the result of a negotiable, contextually determined social construction in terms of points of view, beliefs, perspectives, or powers (symbolic authenticity), and existential authenticity referring to an experience that involves personal or intersubjective feelings activated by the liminal process of tourist activities (Wang, 1999).


8Tourist blogs, forums, and travel websites represent a significant aspect of marketing communication in tourism. Many tourists share their travel experiences online, and blogging has become an inseparable component of the tourist production and consumption process which provide information on tourists’ behavior patterns and descriptions of destinations (Mena and Bosangit, 2007; Pan et al., 2007; Carson, 2008; Puhringer and Taylor, 2008; Wenger, 2008; Bosangit et al., 2009). The range of tourist comments available on the Internet provides scope for a polysemic reading of the written text. Narrative analysis as a research method has been used to gain insights into tourist-constructed identities, meaning-making associated with their experiences, and temporal and spatial characteristics of travel experiences. Narrative enables social research to inquire about the construction of subjectivity in-depth.

9In this paper, I adopt a thematic narrative analysis approach where content is the main focus, with a minimal focus on how the narrative is spoken/written (Kohler Riessman, 2008). I examined tourist narratives available on the electronic media in the form of research articles, travel blogs or personal monologues, websites of tour operators and tourist discussion forums considering these blogs as textual artefacts to gain insight into how tourists construct order and make meaning from their experiences. The sample size for narrative analysis included 100 travel blogs, personal monologues, and tourist discussion forums with India, Varanasi, and tourism as the search criteria spanning over the last 20 years. These blogs and forums covered travel reviews, videos, comments to an existing travel blog, micro-blogs, etc. The blog content ranged from personal experiences, practical information about the destination, local people, food, culture, general facts about the destination, to people met while travelling, warnings to others, security tips, and evaluation of travel-related services. The narratives were provided by tourists not just from India, but also from places such as the United States, the Netherlands, Sweden, South Africa, Mexico, and Britain. In addition, I analyzed 15 travel websites showing tour packages operated by the Government of India and private organizations, and 50 research articles on Varanasi. The content was subjected to a qualitative data analysis technique in which core themes were identified and compared, and analytical categories derived, keeping in mind the objectives of the study. Based on tourists’ perceptions expressed, several key themes emerged that served as an effective criterion to delineate the ambiguities with respect to dark tourism classification systems. In this paper, I mention only those narratives that are significant in terms of understanding the paradoxes associated with dark tourism classification systems.

Death-related Rituals

10Varanasi, also known as Benares or Kashi, is situated on the banks of the Ganga River in the state of Uttar Pradesh, in northern India (figure 2). The city was established as a “stronghold of Brahmanical Hinduism” during the period between the 6th and 13th century A.D. With the level of complex rituals concerning “life” and “death” that exist in the landscape, death and pilgrimage is a huge business, with a significant population of the city involved in it either directly or indirectly. Varanasi is believed to be the place for the final transformation of one’s life—namely, death (Eck, 1983; Parry, 1994; 2004). The west bank of the Ganga River on the eastern side of the city is divided into segments each consisting of a series of steps down to the river, called the ghats. These are places where people perform not just their daily chores of bathing, washing their clothes and domestic animals, but also the cremation of the dead. Several corpses each day are burned at the ghats. Varanasi has always been a predominantly religious destination, with the Hindu temples being the primary focus in tourism promotions, but the fact that two major cremation grounds (Harishchandra and Manikarnika) are located right beside the temples on the ghats and that many tourists visit them cannot be ignored and hence, these spaces of death deserve an equal recognition in Varanasi’s tourism discourse.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Map of India showing the approximate location of Varanasi city

Source: WorldAtlas, <​as/​in/​up/​where-is-varanasi.html>, accessed in January 2014.

11For this study, I will analyze tourist perceptions towards two death-related rituals within the domain of Hinduism that are closely associated with each other. The first type, the Hindu death rituals, referred to as antyesti (the last sacrifice), is often considered to be symbolic of a sacrificial procedure (Bloch and Parry, 1982) that broadly involves burning the deceased over a funeral pyre, breaking the skull of the body with a stick, and immersing the ashes into the Ganga River. There are several preparatory stages involved before burning the body, such as immersing the body into the Ganga river as a mark of initial purification, wrapping the body with a cloth, offering drinking water and rice to the corpse, and anointing the body with clarified butter. These preparatory stages are divided into further sub-stages and the overall ritual is carried out by a priest amidst the chanting of hymns or mantras (figure 3). The death rituals are performed publicly by a group of people locally known as the Doms (a caste of lower social standing in Hindu society) who control all the activities at the cremation ground (selling wood, carrying the dead, flowers, and other items required for the death ritual), a priest (of higher social status than the Doms), and the family members of the deceased (usually male members). The Doms are also the keepers of the “holy fire” used for burning the dead.

Figure 3

Figure 3

The “burning ghats” of Varanasi. I took this photograph of Manikarnika Ghat cremation ground in Varanasi during my field visit in May 2015. It depicts the multiple dead bodies being burned and tourists watching these rituals.

Photo: Nitasha Sharma.

12The second is a type of death-related ritual practiced by a group of ascetics, known as the Aghoris, which is considered as an extreme and aberrant cult. This small sect of Hindu ascetics are rigid renouncers and worshippers of the Hindu deity, Shiva. They are believed to have split off from the skull-carrying Kapalika sect mentioned in Sanskrit texts and the foundation of their order can be traced to that of an ascetic called Kina (believed to be an incarnation of Shiva). Aghori rituals supposedly include performing austerities such as living at the cremation ground, using skulls as food bowls, smearing one’s body with ashes from the dead, practicing coprophagy and necrophagy, meditating on top of corpses (referred to as shava-sadhana), and having sexual intercourse with prostitutes or sex workers. Aghoris believe that all social stratifications are superficial and there should be no difference between the divine and human, the pure and polluted, or the untouchable and the Brahmin (Brahmin is a caste in Hinduism which traditionally comprised priests, teachers, and protectors of sacred learning across generations and often considered to be the “upper caste” in the social hierarchy). According to Ron Barrett (2008), the Aghor logic is to achieve the “fundamental unity of divine creation and the need to deeply internalize an understanding of that unity to attain salvation.” At the same time, he adds that the association between the Aghori ascetics and these extreme practices has been deliberately downplayed with the sect undergoing a significant reform over the years and with Aghori disciples running schools and medical facilities, Aghori ashrams in various parts of Northern India (figure 4), and one at Sonoma, California.

13As stated in Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry (1982: 74), although these two rituals constitute opposing ways of handling human mortality, “they share in the same complex of interconnected assumptions about the relationship between life and death.” They vary in terms of performance but are similar in that:

  • both these rituals directly or indirectly involve a public display of death,

  • the cremation ground forms an integral part of the ritual space,

  • both rituals involve a complex negotiation of sacred and profane space,

  • both spark an interest among international tourists.

Tourist Narratives

14The Indian Hindu pilgrims and international tourists constitute the largest group of tourists. The tourist narratives in response to the death-related rituals in Varanasi elucidate the paradoxes and ambiguities generated from the multiple meanings associated with the site. A major ambiguity that emerges is in the classification of the tourism site according to the different categories of tourism. To begin with, there already exists some amount of fluidity in the different types of tourism: cultural/heritage, religious/pilgrimage, medical, business, adventure, ecotourism, sports, etc. Clearly, labelling a tourist as a “dark tourist” is ambiguous. How does one distinguish a visitor to a religious site who indulges in prayer and spiritual activities from one who is fascinated with the Aghoris or the death rituals being performed beside the temple? I will now discuss a few themes that emerged from the tourist narratives.

Fascination with Death

15The gazing at death in Varanasi’s funeral grounds is complex as it is situated in a landscape known as an important religious destination for the Hindus and every ritual performed at the funeral grounds of Varanasi symbolizes multiple meanings. Not only a Hindu believer encounters the death rituals and takes away diverse meanings from it, but tourists from other cultural backgrounds do so as well. In dark tourism or thanatourism literature, extreme thanatourism also involves a connection with “live” events: witnessing death and depravation or associated rituals as they happen (Dunkley et al., 2007), examples of which include observing public executions and attending burials, such as the Bali cremations (McLaren, 1997).

16The following excerpt from George Mitton’ book Sacred Branches and Other Indian Memories (2012) was published on The Yarn’s magazine website:

The proximity of death is so alien to Western visitors that it exerts a hypnotic pull, and many people find themselves lingering a long while, talking in hushed voices as they peer at the flames. There is something compelling about seeing death at such close quarters. On the burning ghats the viewer is not sheltered from death’s physical realities. Death in Varanasi is not a mysterious thing. It is a public event that happens by the banks of the river where cows and water buffaloes wander amid the funeral pyres.

17And the following is a response from one of the readers:

We stopped for a little while to observe the ghats from a building with a rooftop lookout, watching how the process was carried out and doing our best to maintain respectful despite watching bodies be carried out wrapped in cloth and colourful ribbons, places [sic] on a pile of wood and set ablaze. I suppose I can understand how this whole practice has some people a bit weirded out but I found the whole thing immensely fascinating.

18This kind of tourist narrative demonstrates a fascination with death and the intensity of this fascination may vary among people. This also points out to the fact that dark tourism frameworks offer no scope for incorporating factors such as “fear of death” or “death anxiety.” It is ironical that in dark tourism scholarship, the core of which revolves around death and mortality, there is a lack of understanding about the death anxiety level of tourists who visit sites of death, corpses, or burials. Lennon and Foley (2000: 11) link the shift in patterns of presentation and consumption of death at tourist sites to “the objects of dark tourism themselves which appear to induce anxiety and doubt about the project of modernity” and thus are hallmarks of or “intimations” of “post-modernity.” In fact, studies of death and death anxiety provide the building blocks for the field of inquiry that is often referred to as thanatology (Kastenbaum, 1996). Thanatology draws upon the study of death and mortality and thus, it is useful to examine dark tourism, with its central features of death and mortality, by drawing ideas from it. Philip Stone (2010), in his thesis, used a “Revised Collett-Lester Fear of Death Scale” to measure the death anxiety levels amongst people and to examine dark tourism experiences and notions of mortality. He supported the analysis suggesting that individuals have a pervasive anxiety of mortality. Clearly, there is a vast amount of literature on death (Templer, 1970; Becker, 1973; Kierkegaard, 1980; Mellor, 1993; Mellor and Shilling, 1993; Neimeyer and Moore, 1994), but rarely has it been applied to understand the death anxiety levels among tourists.

The Dialectic of Sacred and Profane

19Two themes that emerged from the narratives are “sacred” and “profane.” The notion of “sacredness” appears in tourist narratives, travel brochures, and websites. The words “sacred,” “holy,” and “pure” are frequently used. The concept of sacred space is useful for the understanding of dark tourism. Dark tourism sites are powerful or sacred spaces that may involve rituals of commemorating the dead. To grasp tourist motivation at sites of dark tourism such as the Holocaust Museum, concentration camps, war memorials, or cemeteries, it is essential to understand the sacralization process at these sites. The concept of sacred space is closely associated with religion, life and death, and therefore proves useful in understanding dark tourism, where life and death form the core concept. The concepts of sacred and profane form a paradox pertaining to dark tourism sites.

20“Sacredness” is believed to be a construction of imagination or an inherent property of some object or class of objects, and the landscape of Varanasi is one in which the “sacred” and “profane” are the inevitable overlapping dimensions of human experience. As previously mentioned, Belden Lane (1988) writes: “a sacred place is an ordinary place, ritually made extraordinary and it becomes recognized as sacred because of certain ritual acts that are performed there.” Lily Kong (1993) also believes that sacredness is not exclusive to religious places, that God is everywhere, and sacredness is an experience that is not confined to any one particular place, which implies that certain people could equally experience death spaces as sacred. Nick Osbaldiston and Theresa Petray (2011) argue that the horrors of death and suffering exist alongside a pure sacred experience of places considered “dark” in the literature (Seaton, 1996; Lennon and Folley, 2000), and that ritual and small events, both collective and individual, convert the experience into a holistic sacred moment.

21The dialectic of sacred space and impure (or profane) thus poses another challenge in understanding the nature of the tourist site. However, the argument by Nick Osbaldiston and Theresa Petray (2011), when applied to Varanasi, makes sense, because despite dead bodies being cremated and floating in the Ganga, several tourists seem to reconcile with it, considering it part of a sacred religious ritual. This can be seen from the following narrative of a person from South-Africa, Navrishka Seebaluk (2013, p. 138):

Varanasi is a sacred space that is full of the energy of temples and prayer, burning funeral ghats, religious pilgrims and spiritual seekers. The effervescence and collective consciousness of the people and the space creates an atmosphere of sacredness, largely opposing the profanities of everyday life and space boats . . . The smell of the burning ghat and the sight of hundreds of dead bodies, along with the energy created by the ghat, was a reminder that death is an eminent part of the cycle of life itself. During the aarti (prayer ceremony), the sight of the priests, monks and people praying at the Ganges made Varanasi a special space within Hindu religion. Swamis and monks are key at all Hindu sacred sites. Monks are believed to possess a sacred energy that profane individuals do not possess and their presence adds value to sacred sites. The resulting consciousness of the space and the effervescence created by it impacts even those not spiritually inclined. I ventured into Varanasi as a pilgrim and spiritual seeker but at times also felt very much like a tourist as a result of the busy city life which is geared towards the tourist market.

22Whereas the above narrative reveals a reconciliation with death by the tourist, a personal account on a webpage named Little India reveals the “shock” that tourists may encounter upon seeing death or its representation:

A dozen kids were playing cricket close to the Hanuman Ghat along the Ganges. A high ball dropped behind the temple. I was busy photographing them at the game, when the bowler casually called out for me to fetch the ball. I obeyed and found it floating on the edge of the river. As I bent to pick it up, I realized it was covered in ash. Three fires were smoldering close by. To my utter shock I realized three cremations were underway. I stood flabbergasted staring at the funeral pyre barely a foot away from me, as the ash-covered ball in my hand dripped water. A player shouted for the ball and I turned, distressed that I may have unknowingly trampled on a sacred site. The boy took the ball, thumped it on the ground a few times to shed the water and threw it back into play. The cricket game, like everything else in the city, simply carried on amidst the funeral chants and the grieving. (Amole, 2008)

23The multiple meanings that tourists attach to this site and the Aghori rituals can be understood by the interesting terms and adjectives used in the travel blogs and websites by various tourists and Indian travel agencies/tour operators to describe Varanasi. These include words such as “sacredscape,” “exotic,” “Groovy Ganges,” “Groovy Tours,” “Classic Varanasi Tours,” “unique tours,” “City of life and death,” “spiritual quest,” “mystical journey,” “pilgrimage centre,” “amazing heritage,” “grand experience,” “traditional tours,” and so on. Besides these promotional and positive adjectives, other words such as “filthy Ganges,” “disgusting” and “crazy” Varanasi crop up in some discussion forums. The Aghoris find mention in the travel lists such as “5 things to do in Varanasi” and in the travel blogs and discussion forums. The tour operators and travel agencies (both public and private) do not boldly mention the Aghoris. In the other places that they find mention, they are usually described as “The eaters of the dead,” “the legitimate cannibals of India,” “the terrifying Aghori sadhus,” “Aghori cannibals,” “the living dead Aghori monks,” “Aghori tantriks,” “Murderer Aghori,” “Necrophagous Aghori,” etc. In popular culture, Aghoris have also found mention in television media (Ripley’s Believe It or Not, other Greek and Finnish documentaries, and some Indian movies such as Naan Kadavul). There are also a few YouTube videos available on Aghoris.


24Another theme that emerged was “morality,” which is a key question, related to dark tourism sites in terms of whether or not is it ethical to develop and promote death for tourist consumption. Describing ethical/moral issues in the context of Varanasi offers another ambiguity. An important point that one needs to remember in the analysis of tourist perceptions is that societies are culturally diverse with different notions of death and multiple mechanisms to confront mortality. The open display of cremation rites in Varanasi is a cultural shock to Westerners. As quoted by an Italian tour operator in Christiana Zara (2007; 2011),

[A]nd then come the cremation ghats and reactions are very intense, the sight is all focused on seeing, understanding . . . it’s a voyeuristic gazing, perhaps even genuinely interested: cremations are not allowed in the West, I mean, you don’t really see them, so there is bewilderment, perturbation sometimes. Cremations have a transgressive nuance: here death is revealed, is exposed, and that requires explanation, but the tourist is not always willing, or does not always have the time, to listen to that.

25A Swedish journalist found her moral judgement questioned and decided to leave earlier than initially planned:

For all its filth, the Ganga is indeed the “river of heaven” for Hindus. And some of this sanctity reaches out to the tourists and everybody else. But why, really, are we in Varanasi? Is it not perhaps to experience the closeness of death and its frightening everyday character? . . . In fact I spent an entire week exploring the ghats and alleyways until I began to feel that my value judgements had been jolted. At times I felt something akin to panic, and decided to leave Varanasi earlier than planned. (Oja, 2015)

26An Indian tourist on the other hand loves the city, despite calling it vile.

Varanasi is as crazy and unique as cities come and if you want to test whether you will love or hate India then I would come to Varanasi. Me? I love Varanasi and I love India. Crazy it may be, vile also but utterly absorbing and definitely special. Where else would you experience homemade fireworks going off within a metre of you, the locals bathing, swimming and drinking a river 3000 times more polluted than the safe limit and dead bodies floating down the river?! I can think of none. (Chapman, 2009)

27For the Indian people living in Varanasi, death is so pervasive that a commonly held view is that people have accepted the idea that they are going to die and are not afraid of death or the presence of burning corpses. This has been empirically proved using terror-management theory in social psychology (See Fernandez et al., 2010: 183). Clearly, the cultural differences related to sites of death and human suffering tend to differ among domestic and foreign tourists. Dark tourism products are multi-layered and people from different parts of the world perceive these products differently. Varanasi for Indian tourists holds a different significance as it is considered a holy place according to the Vedas (ancient Hindu texts). Another aspect at play here is the notion of the “Other” (Said, 1978). The concept of Othering has undergone post-colonial changes where it is used to refer to the imaginary construction of different people who remain marginal yet powerful. They are referred to as the “exotic Others.” The austere death-related rituals at Varanasi performed by the funerary workers or the Aghoris might evoke feelings of awe and fear among international tourists as compared to local people who are familiar with their activities. They might be perceived as the Other in this case by Western tourists. The gaze of an international tourist might not be voyeuristic, but the public cremations in Varanasi may present an uncanny spectacle to the tourist.


28An important concept that surfaces in the tourism classification frameworks is the term “authenticity.” The usage of this term has been quite contentious in the tourism literature. Authenticity in dark tourism classification frameworks is discussed in terms of location and product interpretation. But there are several ambiguities in classifying the site and associated death rituals of Varanasi as authentic and inauthentic. So far dark tourism literature has not been able to clearly define what constitutes the “authentic” dark experience for a tourist. From Stone’s framework (2006), it may seem simple at first to classify “sites of death and suffering” as authentic and “sites associated with death and suffering” as inauthentic if considered only from a locational perspective.

29A major concern in Varanasi is that the increased commoditization of the place and increased growth of the tourism infrastructure have forced the ritual performers to adopt “short-cut” means, that is, the rituals are performed in a hurry without going through the detailed steps, or to put up a performance (objective authenticity). The advertisements of guest houses and hotels on the Internet often use captions such as “The authentic Varanasi Experience” (see TripAdvisor, 2011) and “Varanasi Responsible Tours” (Tathãgata Journeys, n.d.), which promise tourists to connect with Varanasi on a culturally and environmentally responsible authentic tour organized by local tour guides. These hotel and tour websites are sometimes accompanied by ratings from tourists, on a scale of one to five. One of the reviews on a popular website, (2013), reads as “Great Ganges view for an authentic Varanasi experience with all the comforts of home.” The hotels cater to both international and national tourists and offer four-star and five-star services. In short, the word “authentic” is everywhere!

30A tourist from the United States named Derek Earl (2012), who has visited about 87 countries, writes on his blog: “There are too many tourists. You can’t have a conversation with anyone without them trying to sell you something. Nothing is authentic.” As observed by the Swedish journalist Ingvar Oja, “Death is everywhere. And so spectacular in Varanasi that it becomes a marketing stunt for the tourist industry. In one of the alleys I saw an advertisement for a hotel trying to attract guests with the slogan: ‘Close to a Cremation Site.’” (2015: n.p.)

31But how will an outsider or an international tourist even realize that he/she has been hoodwinked? Thus, despite a staged performance, the tourists might still consider the experience to be an authentic one. John Urry (2002) highlights that representation plays a fundamental role in the way people enjoy a particular tourist experience. He says that much of what is appreciated by the tourist is not directly experienced reality itself, but representations of it, so much that the tourist is able to recognize the authentic because he/she has become so acquainted with its reproductions (Holloway et al., 2011). In the “search for enjoyment,” “staged authenticity” is acceptable for tourists as a substitute for the “original” (Cohen, 1995; Rickly-Boyd, 2012). Some tourists are smart enough to see through the fake performance but such instances are rare. The ritual performers, priests, and Aghoris claim to be the warrantors of authenticity and the tourists rarely question their authority (constructive authenticity). At times, tourists remain clueless during the ongoing rituals and are merely satisfied because they believe that they witnessed something exotic. Thus, it is difficult to judge what is authentic and what is not.

32Another tourist quotes that “you can watch from your hotel balcony ceremonies over the river. You have a nice view of the ghat for the funeral ceremonies, where they are burning corpses” (TripAdvisor, 2014). It is clear that despite the search for authenticity that attracts tourists to this place, they do long for first-class services in terms of accommodation, and the tourism industry tries to provide them a comfortable Western lifestyle and other amenities. This is supported by Cohen (1972) who says that some tourists decide not to choose authenticity. The tourism infrastructures, while assuring the tourists an authentic and “local” experience, promise them the comfort of their home. In the case of Varanasi, the travel guiding websites frequently use the term “local” with “authentic” to attract tourists.

33The advertising campaigns tend to “aestheticize” the city and project an image for the Westerners which further generates a spiritual fantasy in their minds. According to Zara (2011), “the secular, rational, scientific ‘West’ looks perturbed at the irrational, mystic, hideously sacred ‘Orient’ and the tourist industry reworks Western imaginary in such a way that the sacred might be experienced and consumed by the customer within a safe, ‘bubblelike’ (Boorstin, 1964; Cohen, 1988) environment.” Contradicting this, others argue that “Most visitors agree it’s a magical place, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. Here the most intimate rituals of life and death take place in public and the sights and sounds in and around the ghats . . . can be overwhelming” (Lonely Planet, 2014).

34Mari Korpella (2010), while investigating how the “Westerners” encounter India, writes that they appreciate authentic India, and this authenticity is about India’s ancient, romanticized past instead of its modern present. She claims that tourists are attracted to Varanasi above all because of its exotic and mystic image. For many tourists, the presence of monks, Sadhus, or the Aghoris wearing saffron-coloured robes or shreds of clothing, carrying out their day-to-day routines and their traditional lifestyle, less caring about the happenings in the external world, provides a unique experience. The quest for authenticity might be thought of as being fulfilled owing to the usage of words such as “real,” “pure,” “original,” and “traditional” in the narratives. An anthropologist from Brussels Free University, Belgium, writes:

When I decided to learn about death rituals in India, many people inquired why I picked such a “dark” subject. I recalled the time my grandfather died . . . this event taught me that, more so than the dying, it is the living who need a serious initiation to face mortality. For me, exploring this topic was part of a quest to live life to the fullest. I wanted to discover how to live a life where its finite energy would not be devoured by the fear of death. I wanted to understand the ever-presence of death in this city and what it meant to its citizens. Varanasi is a mysterious city where, on the cremation ground, newspapers are read, breakfasts are taken, and people are drying clothes by fires that are fueled with bodies. As some local friends had prescribed, for hours I would gaze at the most subtle smoke that arose from the cremation fires and try to intuit death, which is the custom of the Varanasi people. Generally in Varanasi, death puts on a blunt mask. However, reaching this shore, death drops its mask, and one looks death straight in the eyes transforming any mere aspirant into a disciple on the quest to know death. (de Looze, 2011)

35There is evidence that some people might be interested in experiences that allow them to discover and express themselves. Pau Obraor Pons (2003) says that sometimes banal and mundane aspects of tourism (in this case, the death rituals in Varanasi) have the capacity to facilitate existential authenticity (see also Steiner and Reisinger, 2006). This is evident from the following Indian tourist’s narrative which indicates that encounters with something banal such as the Aghoris can generate feelings of self-realization (existential authenticity).

I was constantly amazed at how peaceful the place was. It’s peaceful even if it’s located in the middle of the city and you can even hear the river flowing in the background.

We asked him, “What kind of baba are you?”

He replied, “Aghori baba, People call me Aghori baba. Do you know what it means?”

We said, “No.”

He then said, “It means that I don’t care about anything . . . I have eaten Human Flesh, Urine and Stool to become aghori.”

. . . For no reason I was scared at that point. Maybe because I hadn’t seen anyone like him before. Weird stuff filled my mind and the cave started to look dangerous. My mind was blank. I didn’t speak anything because I couldn’t. I was surprised, excited and scared at the same time. Scared because I had previously heard dangerous stories about Aghori baba’s . . .

So without thinking much I asked him, “People believe that you know the future. Is it true? Can you tell us too?”

He smiled and laughed at the same time and said, “It’s useless! Don’t ask for the future, you got to make it! People ask me how long will they live, and if I say it then they start counting the days. So they die psychologically and never live happily. That’s why fortune telling is really dangerous. Don’t try and ask anybody. You are going to die one day so don’t think about that. Instead, create your own future . . .

He started walking towards his own path and we left the place thinking about the most thrilling and exciting experience that we had in such a short period of time . . .

You might not find him completely dangerous, since everything I’ve written above was my own experience—mostly psychological.

They are really good people and will be more than happy to meet you, if you visit them. If you haven’t, then you should definitely pay him a visit. I had a good experience and feel very lucky to meet him. (Enwil, 2012 [emphasis in orginal])

36The above narrative is an example where the tourist contemplates his mortality and how his perspective towards life and death later changes after encountering an Aghori. The tourist considers it to be an authentic experience.

37The perceptions of death differ across cultures. “Responses to death are culturally bound and historically variable” (Bowman and Pezzullo, 2010) and death is an anxious reality of life that Westerners do not want to face (Becker, 1997; Kubler-Ross, 1997; Yalom, 1980; Suri and Pitchford, 2010). It is reality that cannot be ignored and unless one’s mortality is confronted, the anxiety of death that follows may impair an authentic way of being. Understanding death requires conceptualizing and being aware of how it impacts a person’s authentic way of being and how an individual can retain one’s genuineness of the self while accepting one’s mortality (Suri and Pitchford, 2010).

38The Aghori philosophy is non-dual in nature, which means that there is only one Reality and this does not recognize any perception of duality: whether good or bad, life or death, etc. The ritual practices of Aghoris are also non-dual in nature. For example, the consumption of human flesh symbolizes that there is no difference between moral or immoral and human or animal flesh. Thus, a confrontation with rituals practiced by the Aghori forces people to contemplate their own mortality by gazing upon the death of the Other. Rochelle Suri and Daniel B. Pitchford (2010: 132) think that “confronting death allows people to live fuller, authentic lives” and that “authentic living is the ability to live in congruence and in accordance with the realities of life.” According to the Aghori philosophy, it is the fear of death that prevents one from leading one’s life authentically. Therefore, despite the increasing commoditization of death in Varanasi that challenges notions of authenticity, a confrontation with death rituals might force people to contemplate their own mortality and question their authentic self in some way or another. Watching the dead burn at the funeral pyres and the Aghori rituals remind people of the ultimate reality that everyone will die.


39This study is significant as it indicates that instead of classifying sites based on “shades of darkness,” it might be useful to explore the possibilities of adopting a multidimensional performative approach that attends to the way a place is “performed” by a tourist and the ways people conceptualize, use, and interpret a tourist site. Such an approach will also help to understand issues of contestation of space, rituals and performances, physical or symbolic aspects of the site, visitor relationships to sites, and varying notions of authenticity. The existing dark tourism frameworks rarely offer a scope to include such multiplicity of perspectives, cross-cultural perceptions, or the complexities associated with the notion of authenticity in tourism.

40The death-related rituals in Varanasi point out that despite being a pilgrimage site, it displays aspects of dark tourism and spaces of death in the form of cremation grounds and Aghori ritual spaces. The narratives display that tourists are interested in the pilgrimage site for not just religious purposes or the temples. These multiple meanings are not only shaped by the death-related rituals, the individual death anxieties of tourists, or the way in which the cremation ground is symbolically constructed, but is also influenced by the religious and cultural background of the tourists. These multiple meanings generated by the site further give rise to certain paradoxes and ambiguities in terms of notions related to the sacred, morality, authenticity, and perceptions towards death. These ambiguities challenge pre-existing dark tourism classification frameworks. Thus, tourist interest in these death-related rituals cannot be merely disregarded as an exotic interest in Southeast Asia. The ghats of Varanasi represent a space of transition, of both death and the regeneration of life, between sacred and profane, or a place on the threshold of the beyond, and hence can be characterized as a liminal space. There is a need to look at dark tourism sites from a perspective that is not bound by such frameworks, and dark tourism research should take into account the mutable and polysemic meanings attached to the sites.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1
Caption A Dark Tourism Spectrum: Perceived Product Features of Dark Tourism Within a “Darkest-Lightest” Framework of Supply
Credits Source: excerpt from Stone, “A Dark Tourism Spectrum: Towards a Typology of Death…,” p. 151.
File image/png, 87k
Title Figure 2
Caption Map of India showing the approximate location of Varanasi city
Credits Source: WorldAtlas, <​as/​in/​up/​where-is-varanasi.html>, accessed in January 2014.
File image/png, 163k
Title Figure 3
Caption The “burning ghats” of Varanasi. I took this photograph of Manikarnika Ghat cremation ground in Varanasi during my field visit in May 2015. It depicts the multiple dead bodies being burned and tourists watching these rituals.
Credits Photo: Nitasha Sharma.
File image/jpeg, 244k
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Electronic reference

Nitasha SHARMA, Beyond the Shades of DarknessTéoros [Online], 35, 1 | 2016, Online since 05 September 2016, connection on 21 June 2024. URL:

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About the author

Nitasha SHARMA

Doctoral student, Department of Geography, Indiana University (USA) ;

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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