Tuesday February 20, 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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Astounding Facts Related To The Holy Kumbh Mela

The Kumbh Mela is held once in 12 years and between the Kumbh Melas at Haridwar and Nashik, there is a difference of around 3 years

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Kumbh Mela is organized periodically at one of the four places on rotational basis. Wikimedia Commons
Kumbh Mela is organized periodically at one of the four places on rotational basis. Wikimedia Commons
  • Kumbh Mela is a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith in which Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred or holy river
  • As per historic belief, bathing in holy rivers is thought to cleanse a person of all sins
  • The Kumbh Mela is held once in 12 years

“It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvellous to our kind of people, the cold whites.”

These were the words from Mark Twain, after visiting the Kumbh Mela in 1895.

Kumbh Mela or Kumbha Mela is recognized by the UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It is a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith in which Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred or holy river. Traditionally, four Melas are widely considered as the Kumbh Melas and are held in Haridwar, Nashik, Allahabad and Ujjain.

Also Read: 10 Facts To Know About The Historical Meenakshi Temple

These fairs are organized periodically at one of the following places by rotation: Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik district, and Ujjain. The main festival site is located on the banks of a river: the Ganga at Haridwar. It is the junction where the Ganga, the Yamuna, the invisible Sarasvati at Allahabad, the Godavari at Nashik and the Shipra at Ujjain meets. As per historic belief, bathing in these rivers is thought to cleanse a person of all sins.

During the Kumbh Mela, the gathering of Bhakts by the banks of our sacred Indian rivers and is the greatest celebration in Hindu culture. Wikimedia Commons
During the Kumbh Mela, the gathering of Bhakts by the banks of our sacred Indian rivers and is the greatest celebration in Hindu culture. Wikimedia Commons

Heritage of India

First written evidence of the Kumbha Mela can be found in the accounts of the Chinese traveller, Hiuen Tsang or Xuanzang (602 – 664 A.D.) who visited India in 629 -645 CE, during the reign of King Harshavardhana. Kumbh Mela is a glorious heritage of India.

There are various sadhus or saints visit the Mela. The list includes Nagas, who do not believe in wearing clothes; Urdhwavahurs, who believe in putting the body through severe austerities; Parivrajakas, who have taken a pledge of silence; Shirshasins, who stand 24 hours and meditate for hours standing on their heads; Kalpvasis, who take bath thrice a day.

The Kumbh Mela is held once in 12 years. Between the Kumbh Melas at Haridwar and Nashik, there is a difference of around 3 years, whereas the fairs at Nashik and Ujjain are celebrated in the same year or one year apart.

Also Read: 6 Lesser-Known Facts About Kamakhya Devi Temple

Upcoming Kumbh

The belief that originates from mythological times is, during a waging war between the demigods and demons for the possession of elixir of eternal life, a few drops of it had fallen on to four places that are today known as Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nasik. the venue for Kumbh Mela is decided depends upon what position the Sun, Moon, and Jupiter hold in that period in different zodiac signs.

As per historic belief, bathing in holy rivers is thought to cleanse a person of all sins. Wikimedia Commons
As per historic belief, bathing in holy rivers is thought to cleanse a person of all sins. Wikimedia Commons

Magh Mela – Allahabad 2018 (Mini Kumbh)

The Magh Mela is also known as the Mini Kumbh. The Magh Mela is one of the greatest annual religious fairs for Hindus. Hindu mythology believes it to be the origin of the Magh Mela the beginning of the Universe. As a vital occasion for Hindus, the Magh Mela is held every year on the banks of Triveni Sangam in Prayag near Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh.

The Magh Mela is actually the other of Kumbh Mela. Hence, it is also known as mini Kumbh Mela.

Ardh Kumbh Mela- Allahabad 2019

After every six years, Ardh Kumbh Mela is celebrated in the month of January-February when Jupiter is in Aries or Taurus and Sun and Moon are in Capricorn during the Hindu month of Magha. In the year 2019, beginning from 15th January to 04th March; all this will once again be the centre of attraction.

Also Read: 8 Facts About Padmanabhaswamy Temple You Probably Didn’t Know

Facts related to Kumbh Mela have been compiled so that one can get a better understanding of this mega event.

  1. During the Kumbh Mela, the gathering of Bhakts by the banks of our sacred Indian rivers and is the greatest celebration in Hindu culture. Millions of pilgrims visit the four holy locations of the Kumbh Mela in order to bathe in the holy rivers and perform significant rituals.
  2. The place of Kumbh Mela changes in every three years between the four pilgrimage sites, which are – Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. All these towns have significant temples. The Mela returns to each location every 12 years.
  3. The origin of the Kumbh Mela dates back to the age when Gods used to reside on earth. It is said that the curse of Durvasa Muni had weakened the gods and they began to lose their powers. The Asuras ran amok through the three worlds and there was chaos everywhere.
  4. It is widely believed that those who take holy dips at the sacred locations during Kumbh Mela are eternally blessed by the power of the Gods. The sacred bath provides spiritual and material happiness and moves them towards the path of salvation.

    The Maha Kumbh Mela 2013, which occurs in 144 years, recorded an estimated pilgrim’s strength of 100 million devotees. Wikimedia Commons
    The Maha Kumbh Mela 2013, which occurs in 144 years, recorded an estimated pilgrim’s strength of 100 million devotees. Wikimedia Commons
  5. The festival is billed as the “biggest gathering on Earth”; in 2001 more than 40 million gathered on the busiest of its 55 days. The 2001 Kumbh Mela was remarkably conspicuous due to the planetary positions at the time, a pattern that repeats only once every 144 years.67.
  6. The Maha Kumbh Mela 2013, which occurs in 144 years, recorded an estimated pilgrim’s strength of 100 million devotees. The festival was acclaimed as the “biggest gathering on Earth”. The Guinness Book of World Records recognised the event as one of “The Best Managed” events of all times.
  7. An estimated amount of business earnings in Kumbh Mela is 12,000 crore rupees. Employment opportunities created during Kumbh Mela is approximately 65,000.