My previous blog post described the role of the Karta at Manikarnika Ghat at Varanasi; the white cotton-clad males who lead the antyesti rituals on the ghats of Manikarnika, one of the most auspicious cremation sites in the Hindu world. Although moksha can be obtained in other circumstances, for example bathing in the waters of the Ganges in a great festival like the Kumbh Mela, nowhere brings such liberation upon death than the Ghats here. They are the centre of the Hindu universe.
The Karta are the eldest family members of the deceased. There are no other qualifications necessary, though the responsibilities are clearly prescribed.
Cremations can last for many hours hours, and once the fires are underway it is mostly the lower caste ‘Dom’ staff who control the cremation process by wielding a large stick to re-arrange the fire around the body, or by sprinkling more accelerant or ghee upon the fire. The flames temporarily roar up before subsiding again. The only smell is that of the perfumes or ghee used and it is mostly eerily silent. It is the ‘doms’ who own the two cremation areas within Varanasi, and are reputed to be some of the wealthiest men in the city. By Hindu custom, only the lowest caste are able to work with the deceased, the work is considered impure.
Traditional methods are maintained at the Ghat; all wood is split by using large sledgehammers and wedges. No electrical or industrial tools are used. The work is subsequently heavy and physical; and repairs to basic equipment are frequent. In the above photograph, all wood is carried manually down to where the pyre will be constructed. Below, a sledgehammer is repaired and the metal wedges used for splitting logs are visible beside the worker’s feet.
Here a wooden ladder is being repaired by the simple application of a brick. The workers are all ‘doms’, the lowest social caste of a system now illegal.
The wood used can be fragrant and expensive, or basic and cheaper. Imported from all over India, high stacks of wood line the periphery of the Ghat and create the claustrophobic feeling of being in a fortress. The families choose the type of wood they can afford, and purchase a quantity based upon the size and weight of the deceased, the timber being weighed on ancient scales. Only families with sufficient income can afford to completely cremate a family member; it is not unusual for families to not be able to afford sufficient wood.
One of the central wood vendors took a liking to me, and encouraged me to sit with him so I could watch both the cremations taking place along the ghat and also the process of family purchasing wood. The transactions were done quickly. He is photographed here with 2 friends. I am sure his patronage helped me to be better accepted and helped to deter the worst of the ‘ghat priests’ demanding money of me.
Family sizes varied. At times women accompanied the male family members, but it was mostly men who attended. I was told that women were considered excessively emotional and were not strong enough to cope with the difficulties of the environment and the rituals. This is a photograph of one of the few women I saw at Manikarnika. It maybe she is not a family member of someone being cremated but the wife of one of the ‘dom’ staff there.
As each cremation progressed, family members sat and waited in rows on the concrete steps, or in peripheral waiting areas, in reality concrete hollows blackened by the daily exposure to heat and smoke. Most of the families waiting like this were likely to be poorer families and they sat patiently until the end of the cremation. With my nursing background, I could see ample evidence of medical pathology in the form of frequent skin conditions, eye glaucoma and walking difficulties.
Some seemed to relax with a chillum ( a pipe of marijuana ), the grey smoke puffing out like a dragon’s breath. This is not unusual in Varanasi; marijuana was favoured by Shiva and because of this there are official marijuana shops ran by the Government where different forms and strengths can be purchased. A popular choice is bhang lassi, where yoghurt is mixed with nuts, spices, rose water and cannabis.
Other families maintained closeness and waited wherever they could.
At the edges of the Ghat sat sadhus, the former ascetic warriors introduced to fight the invading Muslim armies centuries before, attaching themselves to surrounding temples, or rhythmically beating a small drum, drawing on their chillums in imitation of the ascetic Shiva, the deity who in Hindu mythology enjoys special reverence in Varanasi. In fact the word Manikarnika means ‘fallen ear ring’ and some creation myths suggest it was Shiva’s earring which fell and created the ghat. Another legend suggests that Mata Sati, having self-immolated, was taken by her grieving husband Shiva to the Himalayas, where her body was dissected into 51 pieces, all imbued with the universal life force of Shakti. The 51 parts fell across India, and one fell on Manikarnika, that of Mata Sati’s ear ring. The 51 parts are collectively called Shakti Peethas, and all parts constitute places of pilgrimage. Whichever creation account is accepted, Varanasi and its cremation ghats are associated with Shiva, and Shiva is irrevocably associated with Sadhus.
Whilst the sadhus bring colour and ascetic legitimacy to the ghat, their darker cousins the Aghori, in their pursuit of samsara by performing extreme anti-social behaviours, are seen early morning or dusk, foraging amongst the ashes for whatever they can find. Below is a photograph of an Aghori, dressed in black, maintaining distance from the main crowds.
Every day seemed unremarkably like the previous at Mannikarnika; it seemed timeless. There is a regularity of rhythm, pace and predictability, with the same ‘doms’, stall holders and wood vendors opening up daily. The desolate pyres burned beside the waters of the Ganges, cows and other animals strolled throughout the theatre as if having main roles within the production and the families arrived in an apparently never ending acceptance of the finality of life and the promise of redemption beside the close proximity of a river. considered to be a living Goddess. Varanasi, being a tirtha, or a place where the living walk with the dead and their deities, is a city where everybody accepts their place on the ever revolving cycle of mortality and immortality, and if they are able to, plan for their own death by immersion in prayer throughout the years of old age either in their own homes or especially created ‘bhavans’, euphemistically called ‘death hotels’, where people can reside sometimes for years in anticipation.
The image above is the Karta emerging from the sanctum of the ‘eternal flame’ with a piece of burning coal nestled in the straw he is holding. The flame is hidden by the figures on the left. In the image below a family awaits the return of the Karta with the flame.
Arriving with the straw now alight, the Karta begins his ceremony.
Another photograph below shows a body awaiting the making of a pyre and several pyres almost with the Ganges and the sandy expanse which is its other bank beyond. I enjoyed often crossing the river to the other side and walking along the sandy flood plane; flocks of seagulls sometimes followed the boats and it is customary to feed the gulls with seeds. There is not much on the sandy side but it is sometimes healthy to escape the bustle of the city plus the views back to Varanasi are spectacular.
Another photograph shows colourful ornamentation being removed from the deceased. These were cast aside in great piles beside the riverbanks, to be swept into the Ganges by great water hoses later.
Another photograph shows the remains of cremations as the deceased is brought nearer to his/her own pyre.
Following the cremation, the Karta takes what remains of the body, I believe to be the area of the sacrum, and immerses it into the Ganges.
The hoses are very powerful and force the debris from the ghats into the Ganges quickly. It maybe that more eco-friendly methods of clearing the remains of up to 200 cremations each day have been introduced to Mannikarnika since my visit. Prime Minister Modi has long promised to clean the Ganges of its pollution; he actually lives in Varanasi so maybe he has began his cleansing process here.
Whilst the ghats are being cleaned, keen eyes look for any valuables within the rubbish.
The mounds of detritis and debris provide other locations for people to find some solitude and space within the claustrophobia of Mannikarnika.
Others sit patiently amongst the debris of the cremation site itself, often accompanied by animals attracted by the warmth of the pyres.
Mannikarnika ghat is a very sacred location where crucial aspects of the Hindu faith are nationally brought to a focus. It is here where the eternity of rebirth can be avoided and a spiritual journey brought to its most wonderful conclusion. Somehow in the daily cacophony of noise, thronging people and firey transference into other spiritual dimensions, there is still time for silence, wonderful colour and prayer.
As evening falls and the numbers of cremations reduce, the landscape here assumes yet another dimension. The fires provide most of the illumination on the lower ghats and the flames and smoke become somehow more visible until the smoke is eventually lost in darkness. Family members continue to sit and await patiently the ending of this stage of antyesti, satisfied that moksha has been achieved for their relative.