By Rukma Singh
“The city illumines truth and reveals reality. It does not bring new wonders into the scope of vision, but enables one to see what is already there. Where this eternal light intersects the earth, it is known as Kashi.” -Diana L. Eck
Kashi, or Benaras as it is popularly known, is a phenomenon in itself. It is where all lives are believed to have begun, and where all lives should ideally end. A brief picture of Benaras would be incomplete without the endless course of pilgrims going up and down the ghats all day, air filled with chants of priests, hues of saffron and yellow all around, and well sculptured temples. But even in the constant hustle-bustle of the city, everything is ultimately believed to fall into perspective. The mayhem is almost natural, as if it were meant to be there.
Whatever fruit is said to accrue from thousands of lifetimes of asceticism is known to be obtainable from just three continuous days of fasting in Benaras and a dip in the holy waters of the Ganga.
Out of the 87 ghats along the Ganga, there is one ghat that serves as a window to the other side of Varanasi ; the side where life comes to an end, and where the end of life is made ‘worthwhile.’
Manikarnika Ghat houses some sharp contrasts. Cremation areas are considered to be unlucky and are situated beyond the main city to keep it away from ‘grief’. But Manikarnika happens to be situated right in the middle of all the ghats. The reason behind this is the fact that the entire city of Benaras is considered to be a ‘Great Cremation Ground’ or a ‘Maha Shamshan’. A life that ends here is a successful life.
“Death in Kashi is not a feared death, for here the ordinary God of Death, frightful Yama, has no jurisdiction. Death in Kashi is death known and faced, transformed and transcended.”
To think of death being ‘utilized commercially’ is a scary thought. But, Manikarnika Ghat has given rise to the phenomenon called ‘Death Tourism’. Due to the ‘guaranteed’ liberation of a soul from the endless cycle of life and death, thousands of tourists come here every year only to witness the large scale cremation activities and to gain peace and perspective in life. Even though photography is seen as an act of insensitivity and hostility, tourists don’t refrain from it.
Some of the local residents, however, do not allow their young children to look at the ghats or to even go that way. They believe that it could have a negative impact on the kind, because of the grief associated with cremation.
The ghat is lined with a series of shops providing material for cremation. These range from different types of cloth to a variety of woods: sandalwood being the most expensive and most preferred one. Death, here, is a lavish affair.
Legend is that Lord Shiva gave the boon of eternal peace to the Manikarnika Ghat. It is believed that for thousands of years, Lord Vishnu prayed to Lord Shiva asking that the holy city of Kashi, as Varanasi was known earlier, not be destroyed during the then planned annihilation of the world. Pleased by Vishnu’s prayers, Shiva came to Kashi along with his wife Parvati and granted him the wish. And by consequence, any departed soul that gets its last rites performed in Varanasi attains moksha (liberation).
There are a few more myths around how the Maha Shamshana got its name. One is that Vishnu dug a well for Shiva and Parvati to bathe in. When Shiva was taking a bath, one of his earrings fell into the well and since then it has been known as Manikarnika (Mani is the jewel in the earring and Karnam is the ear).
At Manikarnika, death is celebrated in a worldly fashion. Amidst the chants of remorse and the smoke engulfing the ghat, there’s an unusual happiness – the happiness of leading a loved one to the ‘gateway of heaven’.