India

Manikarnika Ghat – Breaking the Cycle of Death and Rebirth

Often referred to as the ‘the burning ghat’, Manikarnika Ghat is the main cremation ground of Banaras and is quite unlike anywhere else in India. At any one time there may be up to a dozen pyres burning here, with a seemingly constant stream of newly arrived corpes bound in cloth and strapped to a cane stretcher waiting to be cremated.

If you’re reading this expecting to be presented with close-up shots of the cremations, I’m afraid you will be disappointed. At the best of times I am always hesitant to point the camera directly at people during my travels, so the thought of photographing the funeral of a loved one is not something I am remotely interested in.

There is just so much to take in at this ghat, it’s almost impossible to put into words. On my first visit I stopped to watch proceedings from a short distance away.

In the space of under a minute the following happened; five tiny puppies playfully tugged at my shoelaces, three cremations were underway to my left, a cow, goat and two people ritually bathing directly in front of me, a man repairing a boat to my right, a recently married couple having their wedding blessed by the Ganga also to my right, a man standing on my left trying to sell me opium, another man standingon my right trying to sell me a ride on his boat.

Where else on this planet could one be subjected to such a long list of diverse experiences in just 60 seconds ?

It might seem a little strange to say this, but the cremation ground didn’t strike as a particularly sad place. Hindus come to Banaras from all over India to die, and it is not a feared death. A death in Kashi is liberation (moksha), a release from the worldly cycle of reincarnation. The atmosphere is a strange one though, of almost casual solemnity.

The deceased body arrives at Manikarnika Ghat having been carried though the serpentine-like narrow lanes of the Chauk district of Banaras. It is dipped in the Ganga for one last time before being lifted up on to the pyre.

Clarified butter (ghee) is smeared on the wood, in the old days ghee was also used to fill the body before burning. Sandalwood powder is poured over the shrouded corpse, I presume this is to cancel out some of the smell from burning.

Dressed in white, the eldest son walks around the deceased before lighting the pyre. Wailing, crying, or showing any sign of mourning is considered bad luck for the dead. The rest of the funeral party stands nearby,  as heavy wood is placed on top of the body. This is important as heat can cause muscles to contract which could result in the body to sitting up. Bamboo sticks are used to ensure the body is broken down in the fire.

Once the body has been burnt, the eldest son throws a clay pot of Ganga water over his shoulder with his back to the pyre, dousing the fading embers, before walking away.

With a cluster of temples surrounding the water’s edge, Manikarnika Ghat has always attracted the attention of artists. Up until the early 20th century it must have been the most recognisable scene of Banaras, which continued on into the age of early photography.

These images also show just how much the Ghat has changed in the last 150 years with modern constructions.

Manikarnika Ghat cremation ground is managed exclusively by Doms. They are an untouchable caste who sell the wood, collect a tax (kar) for each corpse, and provide the service of building pyres, tending to an ever-burning sacred fire from which all pyres are lit, and rake up the ashes afterwards. The ashes are inspected for any valuables before being deposited in the Ganga. The head of the Doms is a hereditary position, and is known as Dom Raja. His palace on Manikarnita Ghat has a terrace that overlooks the Ganga.

A visit here should not be restricted to just observing the rituals from the ghat itself. To fully appreciate the infrastructure required to support such a large number of daily cremations it’s well worth walking though the lanes that descend down to the ghat.

Here you will find shops selling incense, cloth and other funerary materials, but the main commodity is wood. Everywhere huge logs are piled up, being chopped or weighed – it made me wonder just how much wood is consumed each day by the pyres, and where exactly all these felled trees are coming from. The manpower involved in simply transporting the wood to this ghat should not be underestimated either, I presume much of it comes via boats on the Ganga.

Wealthier families of the deceased can choose to use the much more expensive sandalwood instead of the cheaper mango wood, while the poorest may just use cow dung. On very rare occasions some will simply throw the body directly into the river.

Although the cremation ground is known today as Manikarnika, the name actually refers to a nearby sacred well, the origins of which are said to even pre-date Kashi itself. This is now known as Manikarnika Kund, which will be the subject of a separate blog post.

Traditionally the cremation ground was known as Jalasai Ghat (‘Sleeper on the Waters’), and was annotated on James Princep’s map of Banaras from 1822 with “There Hindoo corpes are burnt”.

Most of the lower ghat we see today was built by the Maratha Queen of Indore, Ahilyabai Holkar, in 1791. Prior to this some construction work was carried out Maratha Peshwa Bajiroa in 1735, largely rebuilding the original ghat from 1302. This is in fact the first ghat in Banaras to be constructed of stone, hardly surprising as it’s been the focal point of intense activity for probably thousands of years.

During the monsoon season the water levels of the Ganga can rise by over 15m, rendering much of the cremation area inaccessible. A higher platform on the ghats was built by Raja Moti Chand, a landowner and patron of the arts in Banaras, in 1912.

Anyone visiting Varanasi as a tourist is bound to see Manikarnika Ghat at some point. Located at the heart of over 100 ghats that line the north bank of the Ganga, here is another aspect of India, one that contributes to the most intense, exotic, colourful, and spiritual countries you could ever hope to visit.


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6 replies »

  1. Fascinating stuff. The earliest impressions of James Princep (1825) reveal that not much has changed in the Ghats when viewed from the river Ganges. A great set of photographs and paintings!

    Liked by 1 person

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