For 3000 years people have gathered to worship on the shores of the Ganges in the holy city known as Varanasi. Overwhelming at times, Varanasi is the mystical centre of the Hindu world where every visitor can witness an abundance of life and death rituals.
Pilgrims bathe in the Ganges to purify themselves via ghats, which are a series of steps leading down to the river. In Varanasi there are about 87 of these ghats; yet the Manikarnika Ghat remains one of the few solely reserved for funerary rites.
Manikarnika Ghat is the holiest place that a Hindu can be cremated in India. Most Hindus believe that whoever has the good fortune to be cremated here will attain Moksha. Moksha is when the soul escapes from the circle of reincarnation and finally merges into infinite consciousness. This infinite consciousness is called Brahman (meaning ‘the eternal light’).
Those Hindus who practice worship to a personal god such as Vishnu, Krishna, or Shiva, believe that when the soul leaves the body here it goes to heaven. In heaven these devotees believe that they will have an eternal spiritual relationship with their chosen god: an idea very similar to the Christian concept of heaven.
The cremation of bodies on this ghat is a very public experience. Many visitors who are unfamiliar with these customs are often shocked at how graphic the process is.
The ritual begins with the wrapped body being carried down to the edge of the Ganges where it is purified in the river. The whole body is washed and water is poured into the mouth. This symbolises that soul’s final drink from the holy Ganges. The body is then carried up and placed into a pyre on the ghat. This pyre is then surrounded by hay and burnt. Over 250 kg of wood is needed to entirely burn a body and the elder male of the family shaves his head as part of the ritual. A number of these cremations can be going on at once and many Hindus continue with their daily rituals and swims despite the presence of these burning bodies.
The flame that starts the burning of this pyre is drawn from a fire that has been burning for 3500 years. All fires that are made to cremate bodies on this ghat are started in this same way. This fire is sacred in that it would also have provided the initial flame that led to the cremation of all that person’s ancestors.
Also known as the Burning Ghat, the fires blaze day and night acting as a constant reminder to visitors of just how sacred Varanasi is to the Hindu world.