Can you imagine standing and watching scores of bodies being cremated in front of you? That sight is what the ‘burning Manikarnika ghat’ will show you.
Maha Shamshan is the name given to Manikarnika ghat in Varanasi, India. Situated in Kashi (another name of Benaras, Varanasi) this Ghat by the bank of river Ganga is considered holy and often finds mention in the last wishes of scores of Hindus living in India and abroad.
What is a shocking fact about this ghat in India is that here death is a business. With different kinds of woods available for sale to hundreds of tourists flocking to this place every year, this ghat is no longer the ‘society-shunned cremation ground’ but instead it is a place which is frequented by locals and tourists.
You would often find young children reciting shlokas from the Bhagavad Gita and talking about the cycle of life at this ghat of death.
The insensitive idea of death tourism prevails at this ghat that is owned by a wealthy man called ‘Dom Raja’. Raja’s men negotiate ‘prices’ for wood and for a part of the ‘holy flame’ that burns at this place in a pit, unextinguised for years. While the body of their loved one lies on the bank of the river, the people negotiate an amount for cremation. Why? Because Hindus believe that this ghat is a gateway to heaven. A place to attain moksha or mukti.
There are many people who are cremated by complete strangers. These now dead people pay a person in advance for his ‘funeral expenses’ and these ‘strangers’ will carry out their last wish. The huge stone steps of Manikarnika are filled with the putrid smell of burning human flesh and of sewage that is flushed into the river Ganga.
At Manikarnika, death is a usual affair. Dead bodies don’t disturb people. They are a sight they have become used to. After the bodies of humans burn and ashes are emptied into the river, divers jump into the water to find pieces of gold or silver jewellery which they can later sell.
The loyalists of Dom Raja say that they let everyone pay as per their wishes.
Legend has it that the Doms (low-caste people) were once Brahmins but they were cursed by Lord Shiva and had then become untouchables. The Dom Raja, whose real name is Ranjit once gave a quote for India Today.
He had said, “Do you know what I want? I want mukti from here, from this job. I’m tired of this life. I have to take, take, take from people all the time. This is my dharma. I live on this najaiz business. I earn from the wages of sadness and death. I will die. You will die. But people won’t drink water from my hands. I have the same blood as you. I feel the same pain. You’ve seen those funeral pyres. Do you see any differences between the corpses? But I’m achhoot. People shoo me off. They call me a neech and a Dom. I may have a lot of money but what use is it? I hate this work, but my family has to eat. I have to maintain 45 servants and a huge family. I have 18 suits. But I never get to wear them. I work day and night, I sleep three hours. I hardly get time to play with my children.” He said while adding that he wanted to learn English and mix in the society.
He added, “It is my fate. It is my prison. What else can I do? If I open up a shop or a business who will come there? Who will buy from me?” He drinks to forget the realities of his life. Furthermore he said, “I cannot banish the smell of death, of rotting corpses I have to pick up off the streets, from my mind. I don’t fear death but I keep thinking of these bodies, bodies all the time even when I sleep. And sometimes when I eat I think of the corpses, of the smell. I cannot even swallow.”
There are two legends surrounding this ghat. One says that Lord Vishnu, after thousands of years of tapasya convinced Lord Shiva to spare Varanasi from destruction when he destroys the world. Lord Vishnu dug a well for Lord Shiva and Parvati to bathe in. One day while bathing Lord Shiva lost his earring (known as manikarnika) fell into the well. Today that well is known as Manikarnika Kund (Cakra-Pushkarini Kund). Mani means jewel in the earring and Karnam means ear in Sanskrit.
The second legend says that Lord Shiva was dancing angrily (performing tandav) in heaven when his earring fell on this place on Earth which was then called as Manikarnika ghat.
Another famous ghat for cremation is Harishchandra Ghat in Varanasi.
Manikarnika ghat is a Shakti Peetha. Shakti Peeths are places on Earth where parts of the corpse of Sati (or Shakti) Devi fell, when Lord Shiva carried it and wandered. There are 51 Shakti Peeth linking to the 51 alphabets in Sanskrit. Sati Devi also known as Dakshyani, is believed to be the first wife of Lord Shiva, the second being Parvati. Goddess Parvati is known to be the reincarnation of Sati Devi.
The tradition of Sati which is now prohibited was taken up after Sati Devi’s act of self-immolation to preserve the honour of her husband, Lord Shiva.
This ghat that will always reverberate with remorse-filled chants of those who mourn the death of their loved ones. Should you decide to visit this place, respect it.
Quick Fact: There are 87 ghats along the river Ganga. Manikarnika Ghat is located between Dashashwamedh Ghat and Scindia Ghat.
Photos: Michal Huniewicz/m1key.com