On the first day in Banaras, we walked down from Assi to Manmandir Ghat where we took a detour and arrived at one of the most recommended Lassi places – Blue Lassi. While we waited for the hyped lassi at Blue (if you like simple traditional lassi then avoid this), we counted upto about 4-5 corpses being carried towards Manikarnika Ghat, in a span of less than 20 minutes.
I had only heard about Manikarnika from many people, but didn’t realise just how busy it really gets. After finishing our exquisite lassis, we stepped out to explore the famously morbid ghat of Manikarnika. The legend here is that, while bathing in a pond built by Vishnu, Lord Shiva dropped his earring into the pond and thus the area came to be known as Manikarnika. It is also one of the Shakti peeths.
We walked through the narrow lanes, letting funeral processions pass by only to stumble upon a huge pile of wooden logs stacked closely. We knew we were close, a youth in his 20s suddenly appeared in front of us and blocked our way.
“Only relatives go down, tourists that way” pointing towards the two storeyed structure that stood overlooking the ghats.
It only seemed fair so we moved towards that side where the same person, Bholas as we were to find out appeared again and instead, asked us to follow him to the ‘hospice’ and which it seems offered a better view of the ‘burning ghat’. “Brother, I explain to you my religion, my culture, this burning ghat, my father, my grandfather, all served here, me doing same. People donate here and old people living here in this hospice, then they dying so this is hospice and if poor people come, then we burning them for free, donation for good karma that means they go to heaven”
“Hindi main bolo, aur woh sab humein pata hain” I say and ask him how does witnessing the same ceremony make him feel towards death. The last rites here are performed in the most mechanical manner that I have seen, devoid of any emotions and everyone seems to be in a hurry to send the soul of the departed on the way to salvation. “Aadat pad jati hain, sir” The cremation ceremonies are conducted by members of the Dom community who have been working at the ghat for over centuries.
We climb up the steps of the hospice, crossing buffalos sitting on the lower floor and destitute women on the last. This vantage point that we are on offers us an unrestricted view of Manikarnika. But there are over 10 pyres burning at the same time and the smoke from the fire makes our eyes burn. This feels like camping all over again, but this time along with the wood, there are human remains burning too. “About 150 kgs of wood required per body” says Bhola as he switches to the universal accent that all Indians tend to acquire at places where many foreign tourists arrive. “Listen brother, no photographs and you too madam, this not allowed” he continues as we try to capture the view.
Standard quality of wood costs Rs. 60 which makes this entire ceremony a costly affair. On the lower reaches of the ghat, closer to the river people belonging to backward classes are cremated while the higher reaches are reserved for the higher classes. It is a big business, the business of death tells us Bhola as a gust of wind blows and leaves us coated with specks of ash from the pyres below. My hair is covered with probably a mix of the mortal remains of the few, and the wood chopped from the nearby jungles.
We don’t pay much attention to this as we ask about the case of the floating bodies on the Ganga and also ask him to shed some light on the Aghori sadhus(this is a much better source than him). But he enthralls us with his description of the magical prowess of the Aghoris, and how certain type of corpses are not burnt but actually sent downstream, with “naam, pata, phone number” written on them so that the Aghoris might pull the body out, perform a puja and could even bring him back to life and then of course, using the co-ordinates even send him back home, to a family who’d be forever indebted to the Sadhus.
This needs further verification but seems like a proper gimmick to further intrigue the western tourist into Indian mysticism. Bhola also adds that if corpses of pregnant woman, child, lepers, sanyasi, snake bite victim are brought to the ghat, they are either drowned to the bottom of the river or sent downstream for further work by the Sadhus – the rationale behind this practice is that corpses are burnt so that they are purified but since persons belonging to these categories are already pure (Pregnant woman – carrying a pure soul, child, sanyasi – pure, lepers – suffering purifies and snake venom purifies the victim) – burning them is redundant.
The occurrence of death and the funeral pyre is such a ordinary event here at the Ghat that I too find myself caught in the same rigamarole. Unattached, indifferent and only to satiate our curiosity, we stare on as a skull cracks, an unburnt bone is flung in the river and a son drops the matka on the bank and moves on with his life. I request Bhola for a picture of the ghat for this post and he agrees, I peer down and notice two feet hanging out, lady’s feet, her face is under the shroud and soon to turn into ashes. I click anyway and stare for a while, thinking about nothing in particular. Nearby in the water, a thick layer of ash is floating and a few buffaloes are soaking themselves in the water to beat the afternoon heat. While a holy cow is foraging for edible flowers near the smolders of a pyre.
Bhola gestures us to move and requests us to donate something to the resident of the hospice. As we move down, he suggests that we take a look at his shop of souvenirs and Banarasi silk sarees and we realise that all of the past twenty minutes were to lure us to the shop, but we politely decline and walk on towards Manasarovar ghat and sit by the Ganga, who carries with her everything that we throw into her, including our mortal remains.