The men with the white cotton clothes and the shaven heads are conspicuous amongst the sacred, infernal landscape of Mannikarnika Ghat, the most auspicious cremation site in the entire country of India. Often separated from family and friends, they sit upon piles of wood or the concrete ghat steps and contemplate their role in the ceremonies which facilitate the passage of their relative from the temporal world into the afterlife, where moksha ( freedom from the circularity of rebirth ) is believed to be attained because of the sanctity of the Ganges at Varanasi.
Called ‘Karta’, they are traditionally the eldest son of the deceased, and have wider responsibilities within a Hindu family other than those enacted at a cremation.
At the beginning of a cremation, the family purchase wood from on site vendors and build a pyre and place the body on the pyre. In front of the watching family, the Karta circle the body three times, walking counter-clockwise so that the body stays on his left, and sprinkle holy water taken from a ‘kumbh’, or a clay pot, on the pyre. Then he will collect a spark on a handful of straw from the ‘eternal fire’ burning nearby, set the pyre on fire and those family members attending stay until the body is entirely burned. The kumbh will be cracked and broken, which symbolically refers to the soul being released from the vessel of the body. Traditionally ashes are gathered on the fourth day and then released into flowing water of the Ganges.
Mannikarnika is mostly a male environment where very few women attend the cremation of family members. It feels quite an intimidating environment, with ‘ghat priests’ overlooking the events and resident lower caste ‘dom’ staff ensuring that bodies are cremated evenly and fully. There are few facilities; a chai stall, no comfortable seating, animals roaming amongst the pyres and a collection of detritis from the previous ceremonies that day. Family members purchase fire accelerants from nearby stall holders which assists with that process, then sit patiently on the cold, hard concrete steps for time to pass and the cremation to complete..
There is considerable responsibility on the ‘Karta’ to conduct that service, and in the event of younger family members dying, karta can even be young boys who, with support from older family members, officiate. Whilst the body burns, the Karta waits patiently until the final rites, where eventually he is able to carry what is left of the cremated body and deposit it into the Ganges. He maintains a responsibility to remember the anniversary of the family members death on an annual basis, as long as there are family members remaining.
The photographs here were taken over a period of 1 month. There is an unwritten law at Mannikarnika that non-Hindus are not permitted to photograph rites of antyesti ( a Sanskrit word meaning literally last sacrifice, and refers to the entire collection of Hindu funeral rites ) , unless monies are paid to those who stop western people taking photographs. It was unclear whether they were Brahmin priests, the doms who work the site or just anybody who sees an opportunity to make some ( often considerable ) rupees. I quickly learnt that I could photograph most of the site without making payment; payment specifically referred to taking photographs of the cremations themselves, or photographs of ‘burning bodies’, as it repeatedly called.
Photographing the Karta mostly required no payment; for the several actual cremations I did photograph, the family provided their permission for me to document the Karta undertaking their rituals, and despite protestations from the resident staff there, I again paid nothing
I acknowledge the peculiar colour signature of these images. My Canon DSLR had been stolen in a festival at the mouth of the Ganges, I had both a small Fuji xPro 1 or Sigma DP2 remaining. The Sigma has a very good reputation so this became the camera of choice for the remaining months of my stay in Varanasi. In order to improve its handling I fashioned a viewfinder over the LCD at the back of the camera, and held the viewfinder against my eye as I photographed. Although it probably looked very odd, it proved a very good solution and the funky colours and the resolution of the foveon sensor can clearly be seen in these images. I am also sure that my non-professional appearance contributed to the tolerance and acceptance that was generally extended to my photography.
Mannikarnika Ghat is an indescribable landscape of ritual and chaos, where the final acts of someones life are conducted within an environment unimaginable unless it is witnessed by one’s own eyes. This is the first of perhaps 3 or 4 photographic and written articles which will cover various aspects of Mannikarnika.