Did you know that as per Hindu mythology, if a soul's last rites are performed in Varanasi, it attains moksha? Find out more about this sacred land.
The Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, where death is celebrated and where hundreds of funerals are held on wooden pyres everyday.
The last time I wrote a blog for the That’s Strange series, one of my friends casually asked, “Do weird places exist only in foreign locales?” And I corrected him by saying, “Of course not! India is home to several strange places. Remember I blogged about Chand Baori, Karni Mata and…”
… and this conversation left me thinking. I wondered how come I missed blogging about the many bizarre places in India bound to leave anyone speechless. That’s the reason why my tenth blog (Yoohoo! Thanks for the love) in the That’s Strange series will mark my ode to India. Mainly because one blog might not do justice to the land rich with religious beliefs, miracles, legends, nature’s mystic wonders and a history that has left an indelible mark in experiences one calls unearthly.
Uncovering The Other Side Of Varanasi
Talking about religion, India is the place where these many different beliefs and practices co-exist. Faith is so deeply ingrained in the many shrines and religious places here that it leaves even a non-worshipper in bewilderment. Let’s begin our journey by walking straight to the revered land of Varanasi and listen to the deathly stillness at the Manikarnika Ghat.
Being closely connected to travel, I’ve come across tourism of all kinds - adventure, eco-friendly, cultural and even virtual. But nothing as unusual and macabre as death tourism! The unearthly Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi thrives solely on that. Not a single day passes when dead bodies are not cremated here with the number going up to two to three hundred every day.
To know that tourists come here to see the funeral pyres being set to fire in the open is more weird than fascinating. The routine ceremony starts when the dead body (wrapped in cloth) arrives and is carried on a bamboo stretcher with the chant ‘Ram naam satya hai’ echoing through the air. Next, the cost of cremation is calculated depending on the weight and type of the wood used. Sandalwood is the most expensive of all wood varieties available. The corpse is then dipped in the water of the River Ganges while the wood is stacked to build the pyre. Though photography is not allowed here, several tourists, especially foreigners, capture videos of the ghat or click pictures while on a boat tour of the city.
The Place Where Death Ends
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 earnest 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(complete liberation from the cycle of birth and death). No wonder, this land is considered to be the most sacred for cremation by the Hindus.
There are a few more myths around how the Maha Shamshanacame to be named so. One being that Vishnu dug a well (which is now known as the Manikarnika Kund) 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 refers to the jewel in the earring and Karnam to the ear).
At the Manikarnika Ghat, death is celebrated. Remorseful chants are sung every hour of the day and smoke engulfs the area day and night as dead bodies are cremated for eternal peace. The ghat is also known as the gateway to heaven by many worshipers.