Manikarnika & Harishchandra: My experience of the cremation ghats in Varanasi

Manikarnika Ghat

Manikarnika Ghat is among the oldest and most revered ghats of Varanasi. This is one of the two cremation ghats in Varanasi and is believed to be the most auspicious place for a Hindu to be cremated which leads to attainment moksha. Legends mention that Lord Vishnu meditated at this ghat and also established a kunda where Lord Shiva and Mata Parvati is believed to have taken bath. Daily, over 300 bodies are cremated here round the clock and the fire of Manikarnika has never extinguished in thousands of years. So those who are cremated here are essentially cremated from the same fire that cremated their ancestors through generations.

During my visit to Varanasi, I visited Manikarnika ghat on the very first day itself. This was not a conscious choice but I just chanced upon the Manikarnika ghat while strolling along the banks of the Ganga leftwards from the Dasaswamedha ghat. I read about this famous burning ghat while planning for the trip and had a fair idea of what one can expect to experience there. From a distance, I could see many chittas (colloquial word for the funeral pyres), the smoke rising high from them and a huge crowd of onlookers. But as I walked closer, I realized, no blog I read, no book truly captured the macabre ghat; it was filled with morbid sights – people walked past burning bodies, children flew kites and men washed clothes nearby, priests performed rituals in small temples as more dead bodies wrapped in white satin queued up, large logs of wood piled up and more deaths only meant more business for them. Here, death was not a grotesque end rather just another step in life and even more a step worth celebrating. Pallbearers carried the deceased accompanied by a procession of drums and cymbals. Nearby is a submerged temple and the temple of Tarkeshwar Mahadev, the deity of the Manikarnika Ghat.

Manikarnika Ghat

Temple of Tarkeshwar Mahadev

Manikarnika Ghat

The submerged Temple

Manikarnika Ghat

I walked closer and sat next to a middle-aged man sitting on a pile of logs, sipping tea about 3 meters away from a funeral pyre. I felt the heat of the pyre on my face and soots from the pyre settled on my clothes. “Life is such,” he said smiling at me and asked, “Where are you from?”. I said, “Bhubaneswar, here for the first time to see this ancient, beautiful city and have darshan of Shri Kashi Vishwanathji”. Soon another guy joined in and I talked to them for two and a half hours, meanwhile seeing the pyre burn down twice only to be replaced by another. There were about 20-25 bodies being cremated right in front of me, more waiting for their turns in a queue on the left. Every five minutes, a new corpse came in decorated with marigold flowers, the family members bathed the body by dipping it in the Ganga river, performed some rituals and cremated the body with the help of doms, a lower caste society performing the burning rituals for generations at the ghat. Something strange had happened, death seemed normal to me, the burning pyres did not bother me, I was not scared to see the roasting arms and a charred skull in the pyre, or was I simply numb to feel anything! A foreigner accompanied by a guide came near us and started to whimper as tears ran unrestrained from her eyes. The man sitting with me said, “This is a cremation ghat, where the souls take a stride from this world to another. Here no one cries, not even the family members as it creates an attachment and hinders the soul in its departure.” As she wiped her tears, I looked around and there was not a single person crying, not even the relatives, no one. Phew! this was all crazy.

The Manikarnika Ghat

Manikarnika Ghat

Manikarnika Ghat

Manikarnika Ghat

A couple of days later, while walking along the river through the various ghats, I saw flames rising at a distance, this had to be the other cremation ghat of Banaras, the Harishchandra Ghat and this time it was no more scary for me to walk near the burning bodies. This ghat is much smaller and less crowded than the famous Manikarnika Ghat. Here there are no touts looking to dupe foreigners, no photographers trying to stealthily click a shot of the cremations and very few onlookers. There is a platform sort of place from where people looked at the cremations. The high rising flames set against the dark sky and the flowing river made a poignant sight.

Harishchandra Ghat

Manikarnika Ghat

Near the Harishchandra Ghat, at a raised platform, there is a small shrine dedicated to Maa Smashanakali. The legends of Maa Kali and her mystic prowess in the graveyards have amazed me for long and I wanted to visit a Smashanakali temple but never had the opportunity. This was the opportunity but perhaps not the best place to be on a 31st December night. However, since I was alone and had decided to spend the new year in this spiritual city on the banks of Ganga, maybe I was exactly at the sort of place which originally inspired me for this trip. Apprehensively, I removed my shoes and climbed the steps to reach the shrine. From the ghat, one can only see the idol of Maa Kali with her dark eyes, open hairs, and the bright, red protruding tongue but on ascending the steps, you step into a different world. It was completely divorced from the ideal imaginations of a temple and the first thing that hit me was the nauseous smell of marijuana wafting in the air of that dingy place. People had assembled around the havankund (firepit used to perform fire sacrifices as part of Hindu rituals) and were warming themselves with the smoldering logs while the marijuana joints made the rounds. There were about 8-10 people including an ochre clad ascetic and a black dog that had managed to snuggle between to find warmth for itself in the chilling night. As I stepped in, those who were not already out of their senses become somewhat uncomfortable with my presence. But as I stepped closer, they made some space for me and allowed me to sit right next to the firepit. After some initial incertitudes and the proverbial “breaking the ice” questions, we mingled well and started to discuss stories and anecdotes. They were pleased to hear about me, my travel stories and what brought me to Banaras and ultimately to that shrine. It was an eclectic mixture with one being a doctor, one a staff in the Banaras Hindu University, one ascetic as I mentioned earlier and most interestingly a tantrik who lived there and worshiped the idol. By now, I shed all my apprehensions and was rather happy to have made the decision to walk up to this shrine. Not only did I manage to find warmth in the cold night but also some company.

The smoldering logs of the fireplace started to faze out, and one of them said, “Let’s get some more logs”. At once everyone left leaving behind 3 insensate souls to share the warmth – the ascetic who by now was profoundly engulfed in the miasma of marijuana, the dog who had found the best place for the night and me, celebrating the new year eve in this desolate place; there was an eerie silence. Five minutes later they all returned with half-burnt logs in their hands. I was taken aback, surely they have not lit those logs themselves and this meant only one thing – they had pulled them from the chittas of the burning bodies. They dumped those logs into the havankund and meticulously poured some ghee into it. Smoke belched out from the hearth and the very same logs on which a human body was burning minutes back was now in the holy firepit. Everyone took their positions around the fire and started to warm themselves in the holy fire while a fresh round of marijuana made its way. I was stunned and did not know how to react. I pulled out my hand from the jacket pocket and stretched it to the fire. Was I really warming my hands in the burning logs of a funeral pyre! Even thinking about this should have been frightening yet I felt no fear no awkwardness; there was absolutely no hesitance.

Maa Smashanakali Temple

Manikarnika Ghat

After about 30 mins, one guy proposed to prepare some tea. Everyone welcomed the idea of having a hot sip in the biting cold night but tea was superseded by a majority who instead wanted to have coffee. Money was pooled promptly and one guy left to procure the items. Meanwhile, a bottle of whiskey had started to make rounds. A debilitated man ascended the steps assisted by a lady and those sitting around the fire made space for them in front of the fire. The lady pulled out a packet of red chilly from a bag as she started to converse with the tantrik about a ghost who she claimed had possessed the man. Things were getting weirder for me and I stood up to leave. Everyone insisted that I should at least wait for the coffee and I hesitantly sat back. The tantric rituals (sadhana) started and the tantrik recited some verses holding a bottle of oil in his hand. In the end, he instructed the man to take a dip in the river at the Harishchandra Ghat right next to the place where dead bodies were being bathed and they left the place.

After some time and a few rounds of joint and anecdotes, the man who went to the market returned. One of them pulled out a kettle from the alcove in the temple wall, filled it with milk and then perched the kettle on the burning logs. Ok. So not only did I warm my hands in those logs but I was about to drink coffee prepared on logs that were roasting human bodies! I cringed but there was no going back now and I was ready for every experience that this place offered. The coffee boiled as the clock ticked towards midnight. A few minutes later, one guy removed the kettle from the fire and poured the coffee into the paper cups. He emptied the first cup into the fire as an offering to the revered Maa Smashanakali whose blessings liberated the departed souls and carried them from this ghat to the other world. Everyone picked a cup, poured little coffee into the fire and raised a toast. In the distance, there were crackers bursting; perhaps 2020 had arrived.

I hope you like this post. Sitting there with those strangers in the Manikarnika ghat and in the Smashanankali temple on the new year’s eve, I overcame fear, I felt liberated, experienced happiness and thrill of the kind no new year party could offer. Moksha must be something similar. These are exactly the sort of authentic experiences that I look for when I travel and they motivate me to travel more and learn more. For foreigners, don’t fall into the trap of the touts and guides. It is really not OK for a westerner to click closeup photos and stroll in between the pyres. It may a crazy experience and something that gives a story to carry back but these are very private and emotional family moments so please respect the sentiments. Kindly share your feedback in the comments section below. Travel, Learn and spread Love!

Soul Esplanade

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