Wednesday April 25, 2018

Manikarnika Ghat: A lavish celebration of death on the banks of River Ganga

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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.”

Death Tourism

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.

The legend

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’.

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Cigars, Pipes Tied To Same Risks As Cigarettes

Traditionally, doctors have asked just whether people smoked cigarettes, but they should instead be questioning patients more broadly about tobacco use

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E-cigarettes
E-cigarettes is considered to be safer than tobacco cigarettes. Pixabay
  • Cigarettes are not the only tobacco products which can cause death
  • Other tobacco products like cigars and pipes are just harmful
  • All these tobacco products can cause cancer

Cigarettes are not the only type of tobacco products that can lead to premature death or fatalities from smoking-related cancers, a U.S. study confirms.

While people who exclusively smoke cigarettes have twice the risk of premature death from all causes compared to people who avoid tobacco altogether, exclusive cigar smokers have a 20 percent higher risk of early death, researchers report in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Cigarettes are not the only harmful tobacco products available in the market. Pixabay
Cigarettes are not the only harmful tobacco products available in the market. Pixabay

When it comes to fatalities from specific cancers that have been tied to tobacco use, cigarette smokers have four times the risk of people who never used tobacco, but cigar smokers are 61 percent more likely to die of these cancers and pipe users have 58 percent higher odds.

“We knew exclusive users of cigars and pipes were at greater risk of disease than people who do not use tobacco,” said lead study author Carol Christensen of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products. “However, this study provides information that reflects today’s patterns of tobacco use.”

Also Read: Banning E-Cigarettes Deprives Indian Smokers of a Less Harmful Alternative: Experts

These data “underscore the importance of complete quitting,” Christensen said by email.

For the study, researchers examined nationally representative survey data, collected starting in 1985, from 357,420 participants who were followed through 2011.

Overall, 203,071 people, or about 57 percent, never used tobacco at all. Another 57,251 participants were current daily cigarette smokers, while 9,414 said they had a less frequent habit and 77,773 were former cigarette smokers.

In addition, 531 people were current daily cigar smokers, while 608 individuals used cigars less frequently and 2,398 had quit.

For pipes, 1,099 participants had a current daily habit, while 78 people used pipes less often and 5,237 had quit.

Pipes, hookahs and all other tobacco products are just as harmful as a cigarette. post-gazette.com
Pipes, hookahs and all other tobacco products are just as harmful as a cigarette. post-gazette.com

During the study period, 51,150 people died of all causes.

With a daily cigarette, cigar or pipe habit, people had an elevated risk of death from tobacco-related cancers including malignancies of the bladder, oesophagus, larynx, lung, mouth and throat, and pancreas.

Nondaily users

Even with a nondaily cigarette habit, people were more than six times more likely to die of lung cancer than individuals who never used tobacco. They also had more than seven times the risk of dying from a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, more than four times the odds of death from oral cancers, and 43 percent higher odds of death from a circulatory system disorder.

Current cigar smokers had more than three times the odds of dying of lung cancer, and for current pipe smokers, the risk was 51 percent higher, compared with never-smokers.

The results were limited, however, by the relatively small numbers of cigar and pipe smokers in the sample, the authors noted.

Cigarettes, hookah, pipes, cigars all are equally harmful.
Cigarettes, hookah, pipes, cigars all are equally harmful.

Another limitation was that survey questions about tobacco use changed over time and didn’t determine how often nondaily smokers might have used cigarettes, cigars or pipes.

Even so, the results suggest that doctors may need to broaden how they discuss smoking with patients to make sure people understand they’re at risk even when they don’t have a daily habit, said Dr. Michael Ong of the University of California-Los Angeles and VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.

Also Read:  Beware! Vapor smoke from E-cigarettes are just as harmful, says a new research

“Patients often do not associate the occasional use of cigar or pipes with health risks, but this study shows that current, particularly daily, cigar use is associated with increased overall risk of death,” Ong, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

Doctors also need to broaden their message about smoking and cigarettes to include other tobacco products that are becoming more popular, said Judith Prochaska, a researcher at Stanford University in California who wasn’t involved in the study.

e-cigarettes
Smoking e-cigarettes are not a healthier alternative to smoking. cigarettes Pixabay

Traditionally, doctors have asked just whether people smoked cigarettes, but they should instead be questioning patients more broadly about tobacco use, Prochaska said by email.

“The tobacco landscape has been changing dramatically,” Prochaska added. “While cigarettes remain the primary tobacco product used, cigars, smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes, hookah, and even pipe tobacco have seen gains in use, while cigarette use in the U.S. has been declining.” VOA