13 March, 2018

Death—part 4

More content was added to this article on 14/03/18

Manikarnika Ghat Varanasi

This is the fourth part of the series on death; together the series covers the following topics:

There is nothing like death / only fools desire to be immortal / there are various spiritual planes / ashes to ashes, dust to dust---it is not as simple as that /The state of mind at the time of death is very important / extreme quiet and self-control should be observed in the chamber of death / why cremation is preferable to burial, as a way of disposing of corpses / about tombs / and in spite of the warning by adepts, tombs were opened, releasing forces upon the world which have endangered it /controversy regarding prophet Muhammad’s tomb / Zoroastrian burial rituals and importance of the dog in the funeral rites and the psychic power of animals / All you wanted to know about the Manikarnika cremation Ghat at Varanasi 

Varanasi also known as Banaras is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, it is said that the Gods lived here; it was the capital of the kingdom of Kashi during the time of the Buddha, who gave his first sermon nearby at Sarnath.

There are two cremation ghats at Varanasi; Harishchandra (also referred as Adi Manikarnika) and Manikarnika ghat, the flames of the funeral pyres at Manikarnika Ghats have been burning since thousands of years and they forever burn meaning there was never a time when there was no funeral pyre burning

The Manikarnika ghat is a Shakti Peetha

Manikarnika It is the only cremation ground which is considered as a place of pilgrimage, due to the presence of the manikarnika kund, which is a sacred water body existing since eternity and taking a bath here on Chandra grahan (lunar eclipse) is considered auspicious whereas taking a dip at Brahma Sarovar and Sannihit Sarovar at Kurukshetra in Haryana on the Surya Grahan (solar eclipse) day is important, all these water bodies are related to Lord Vishnu

The Manikarnika kund

On the ghat itself, are the Gods revered footprints (paduka)

It is a widely held belief that those who are cremated at the Manikarnika ghat attend moksha that is release from the cycle of rebirth, bodies are brought here from all over India, hence the Varanasi airport is possibly the only airport that has, apart from a taxi stand, a stand where a number of mortuary vans - called the shav vahini that transport the dead are available for hire. You could rent them like you would rent a Taxi at any other airport.

However some pundits believe that it is not written anywhere that souls get liberated after cremation at the Manikarnika, what is written in the scriptures as per them is that anyone who dies in Varanasi, you attain what is popularly known as ‘Kashi Labh’ or ‘the fruit of Kashi and the path to liberation is open for the soul, even if the soul has to take a rebirth it would be only in Varanasi

There are even guesthouses in Varanasi where people check in to die, where one can stay for a few days only and if death does not occur then they have to move out, Kashi Labh Mukti Bhawan is the most famous one the others are Mumukshu Bhawan and Ganga Labh Bhawan

The owner of the Manikarnika ghat is the dom raja (raja meaning king) of the dom community, the cursed tribe, the lowest of the low, the untouchables who apart from working at the cremation ghats, only get the manual scavenging job, it is an irony that Shiv is considered as the lord of the cremation grounds and he is kind, non-judgemental and ever accepting, but the doms are not allowed inside the famous Shiv kashi vishwanath temple

In Varanasi, all Doms have the family name—Chaudhary

Doms are the caretakers of the cremation grounds and the main keepers of the fire that lights the pyres; they have preserved the sacred fire at the cremation ground since time immemorial

The eternal fire at the manikarnika ghat

The dom raja passing on the fire to lit the pyre

The eternal fire at Harishchandra ghat, and the fire passed on to lit the pyre

In other cremation grounds such sacred fire is not maintained

The Dom raja provides the first set of five logs of wood required for the funeral pyre. He then hands over a flame from the sacred fire, on a dried piece of grass brought especially from the hinterlands of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to the relative of the deceased person, who then uses it to light the funeral pyre.

The Dom raja (King)

Once the fire on the funeral pyre is lit the Dom’s take over and ensure that the body is burnt completely, after the body burns the ashes are cast unceremoniously into the Ganges

The tax collected to give the sacred flame is called the 'agni-kar' (agni for fire and kar for tax)

In 1998, the Municipal Committee of Varanasi got the Doms to charge a standard rate of 100 rupees ($1.3) for their work. But this did not last. In most cases, Doms charge people what they seem to be able to afford. Let me put it this way the Dom raja extorts money

By experience they can make out the paying capacity of the people also they have a network of informers who pass on the information regarding the net worth of the dead persons family and then the Dom Raja charges them accordingly, It is said that when the dead body of the recently deceased former king of Kashi (Varanasi) was brought for cremation at Manikarnika, the dom was paid 600000 rupees and was given the rights to acres of land in lieu of his services rendered.

They have extorted title deeds of farm lands written in their name when the poor farmers from the hinterlands came down to cremate their dead, if the poor could not pay in cash they were asked to part with their jewellery

The Dom raja is supposed to provide the first set of five logs of wood required for the funeral pyre but they insist that all other wood and articles required be bought from them, if the poor do not have enough money for all the wood required the body is left half burnt and latter eaten by dogs and scavenger birds like the crow and the remains just thrown in the Ganga---the Doms show no mercy

Facts of the Manikarnika ghat

About 5000 people are employed directly or indirectly in this trade

The main item is wood; Firewood chopped from different varieties of trees are stocked up in huge quantities, the rich of course prefer sandalwood to burn their dead while the poor are happy with any kind of wood

Here 5, 7, 9 and 11 mann of wood is sold (1 mann equals 40 kilograms) so on an average at least 300 kilos of wood is required per body (chopped down from at least 4-5 mature trees) and with about 350 dead bodies getting cremated every day. The narrow alleyways that lead to the ghat from the main roads are completely unsuitable for any motored vehicle to carry the load hence everyday around 1000 quintals of chopped wood is ferried on boats across the Ganges to be stocked up at the Manikarnika ghat by merchants inside and around the unused temples that are close to the ghat

A survey by the United Nations shows that 400-500 kg of wood is required to cremate one body, and according to a report in CNN, 50 to 60 million trees are burned during cremations every year in India. I hope and pray that alternate means like Cow Dung Cakes, ‘pyre ovens’ on cremation sites that would help generate enough heat to efficiently burn a human body with less wood 100 kgs only, white coal or using agricultural waste are adopted by people as an alternate to the traditional wood pyre

Apart from firewood huge quantities of ghee (clarified butter) which is needed as a fuel to keep the pyre burning (in the cities they use kerosene), turmeric, sesame seeds, barley, sandalwood scraps, incense sticks, flowers, coconuts, bananas and robes to cover the dead are sold, packages on offer include a sandalwood sawdust bath for the corpse and a three-hour chant for peace plus many more packages

There are various places within the Manikarnika Ghat reserved for people from various strata of society. The Brahmin caste has an enclosed space that was leased over from the Dom’s in order to ensure that the Dead Brahmin is not burnt besides another’s from an untouchable caste (never mind if the Dom who gives the sacred fire are themselves untouchables and belong to the lowest ranks of the “Dalits”, at the bottom of the Hindu caste system) Similar the Royal families and their descendants and relatives have leased out a platform where their dead are cremated. The commoners that include the untouchables and the poor are burnt at the main platforms of the ghat.

But when the mighty Ganges River overflows its banks following heavy monsoon rains, large parts of the Manikarnika ghat are submerged by floodwaters, and then bodies have to be burnt on the roofs of havelis [old mansions] and other old houses along the ghats and that is the time the higher caste and the royals have to bear that their bodies are burnt alongside the commoners

Occasionally there are corpses that arrive but they are not to be cremated. They are just thrown into the Ganga and left for the living creatures to be eaten up. These are the ones who are supposed to have had an ‘akaal mrutyu’ an untimely or incomplete death. People who have taken their own lives, pregnant women, children below two years of age, people who have died due to a snake bite and lepers are not burnt because of the belief that their souls have not yet been readied to free from the liberation of birth and rebirth.

It is awful (very bad or unpleasant) to see a dead body just floating in the Ganga

Not all bodies are covered in the same way; the system goes as follows:

The ones that have lived a full life which implies men who were married, borne sons and grandsons and lived up to a reasonably ripe age are covered with colourful tinsel wrapped cloth and garlands of marigold flowers around them.

Then there are corpses wrapped in red and decorated with flowers and vermillion which belong to women who have lived a full life (i.e. borne sons at the least and have predeceased their husbands). They are called Suhaagan  i.e. the fortunate ones.

Then there are ones wrapped in white cloth and not decorated with any kind of flowers. These are widowed women irrespective of the age they have died

Men who die relatively young also are wrapped in white, although their corpses would be decorated with flowers.

It is widely believed that nobler the soul, the quicker it turns into ashes and also the body of a person with no desires left is light in weight

Before cremation the body is immersed and washed in the Ganga

About ten to fifteen minutes after the funeral pyre has been lit, one hears the sound of the skull cracking open. This signifies the escape of the consciousness from the physical body and liberation. The Dom’s with the help of long bamboo sticks constantly carry out stuffing the wood and the flesh into the pyre and stirring it up later the bones and the flesh are pushed into the central part of the funeral pyre so that all parts of the body are burned and turn into ashes in about two to three hours, At the end of this ritual, only a small portion remains: the trunk for men and the hips for women

The Doms say that the smell of burning hair is the worst, their job is not an easy one so they numb their senses by drinking copious amounts of alcohol and smoke cheap ganja (marijuana) and chew on gutka (a mixture of tobacco and crushed nuts) to cope up

So alcohol and smoking becomes a part of their life and hence it is not surprising to see the Doms performing a daily ritual where they offer alcohol and cigarettes along with fruits and flowers as thanksgiving to Kallu Dom, the ancient chieftain of the Dom community under whom the great king Raja Harishchandra was enslaved (The present day Dom’s at the Manikarnika ghat are believed to be the descendants of Kallu Dom)

During my visit to the Manikarnika ghat I saw a Dom urinating on the wood kept to be used in the pyre, such type of idiotic behaviour can only be done by a person who is not under his senses

Whatever can be reused or recycled is done in the following way:

Dom family collect the clothes or jewels of the corpse and sell it in shops and once the ashes are cast into the Ganges another set of Doms neck-deep in the charcoal black water sift for any valuables that can’t be taken off the dead-- like gold teeth or firmly embossed rings

The heat of the funeral pyre would melt the gold and it would be bound to lose shape. However small pieces would be found scattered in the ashes that are then thrown into the river they are recovered by Dom workers who sieve the burnt ash immersed in water through a fine cloth checking for pieces of gold before throwing it out into a mound that would then be carried away and dried up to serve as coal for other uses

An electric crematorium has been set up at the Harishchandra ghat but first the body is brought to be immersed and washed at Manikarnika

Apart from work at the Manikarnika ghats the doms get the job to clean dry latrines that is the manual scavenging job, one poor dom fellow got tired of his work and opened  a sweet shop but nobody was willing to eat at his shop so he had to come back to the ghat burning bodies

The Dom family feud and a woman locks horns with the system to become the first Dom queen

There is the Dom king and there are around 30 main doms and after them come the 500-odd doms, who form the second rung of hierarchy

After centuries of extorting money the Dom Rajas family has accumulated immense wealth; there has even been a case of a Dom rajas son getting kidnapped for a huge ransom (there operates a strong kidnapping mafia in Uttar Pradesh backed by the politicians)

After the last Dom raja died he left two wife’s, one was childless and it is only natural that she did not get along with her husband’s second wife and she was denied any claims, so she fought many court cases to claim her right to collect the Agni kar tax, she eventually won and took up the work of her deceased husband, now there is more or less peace in the Dom house hold because the days are divided where various family members including females who get to keep the collection which is quite huge; which is collected in an iron chest and transported with an armed guard at the end of the day, so there is no fixed Dom king or queen

It is indeed women empowerment at its best when a female from an orthodox lineage where the moment a girl reaches puberty she is not allowed to study and is forbidden to step out of her home alone without a male relative had fought with the system and continued the work of her husband otherwise it is unimaginable that there can be a presence of a woman on the Hindu cremation ground

However she being the head, her role is limited to collecting the Agni kar tax and she does not handle the bodies

The Dom rajas palace on the bank of the Ganga

Some more very interesting facts

It is a custom in the dom household that food is cooked on burning wood which is taken out from the funeral pyre

The photo is of the dom raja who is now dead, sitting near the cooking pot, he is badly burnt, it is a sad paradox, for a man in charge of burning the dead to get burnt himself because of a cylinder blast at a wedding

Holi (also known as the "festival of colours”) celebrations start on the night before Holi with a Holika Dahan where people gather, perform religious rituals in front of the bonfire, and pray that their internal evil be destroyed the way Holika, the sister of the demon king Hiranyakashipu, was killed in the fire. The next morning is celebrated as Rangwali Holi – a free-for-all festival of colours where people smear each other with colours and drench each other.

But at the Manikarnika ghat Holi is played with ashes from funeral pyres and red gulal, amidst other lit pyres; before celebrating holi a puja (ceremony) is performed at Baba Mahashmashan Nath Mandir offering bhang, ganja (marijuana), fruits and flowers to the deity

On one hand the dead body arrives for cremation at the Ghat, while on the other hand sadhus arrive to play holi with ashes from the funeral pyres

In the photo above (click to enlarge) see the munda mala (skulls of humans worn around the neck); by possessing the skull of a human the person can take charge of his soul, hence it is very important that the skull cracks /pops open during cremation  

Now coming back to the person who is wearing such a munda mala, your thought will be-- he must be a Aghori, I do not know who the person is, most probably he may be a fraud, but the full world has such degraded views about the Aghor panth

Let me just tell you this; in today’s World where we have stooped down so much; are the politicians doing good for the society, the answer is no, they are corrupt to the bone people who just want power and money, are the Bankers helping to build a nation , the answer is again no, today the top bankers are ruining the economy, so similarly people who call themselves Aghoris are not true Aghoris of the Aghor Panth, they are just human flesh eating misguided  people who engage in post-mortem rituals

The word Aghor literary means “non-terrifying”; they are the Vedic Alchemist who having transformed their being to be people of light and are capable of bringing a change in energy and matter

Feel blessed when you hear the word “Aghor”, someday you would know all about them

This ghat also witnesses a unique programme of dance and music amid the smokes from the pyres and cracking sounds coming from the burning bodies at the cremation ghat; annually on the seventh night of Chaitra Navratra, when the sex workers after cleaning the temple, offer their prayer to the deity of cremation ghat. And after performing religious rituals, they present dance and music at the makeshift stage amid the burning pyres in respect of the lord of cremation ground. It is a tradition in Varanasi that the 'Nagar Vadhu' (courtesans or 'bride of the city') perform for the deity at the seventh night of Chaitra Navaratra

Raja Savai Man Singh of Amber, who had built Man Mandir Ghat in 1585 near Dashshwamedh Ghat, had also renovated the Mahashamshan Nath temple at Manikarnika Ghat. In Hindu tradition, it is common to hold music programme on special occasions. No reputed artist wanted to perform at the cremation ghats but the Nagar vadhus (nautch girls / sex workers) offered their services at the inauguration of the temple and since then the tradition continues

Nautch from the word नाच (nāch), from the root Sanskrit word Nritya meaning dance {currently I am studying how most words have their roots in Sanskrit}

Dancers offering prayers at the  Mahashamshan Nath temple at Manikarnika Ghat before performing

The dancers performing, while funeral pyres burn in the background

Doms’ akhada-- The corpse burner's wrestling pit

Akhada means a place of practice, the Dom’s have an akhada for body building and wrestling

The Doms are known for their physical prowess and every Naag Panchami (snake worship festival) they make a public show of it, lifting impossibly heavy stone wheels and doing various acrobatics

While Untouchability is predominant, there was a time when the Dom akhada would overflowed with pehelwans (Pahlavan is a title which designates someone really strong) from different castes, for a pehelwan, the caste did not matter, all were equal on the playing field. In fact, a number of wrestlers, irrespective of their caste, drop their family names /surnames for the title of “pehelwan”, indicating that their art, rather than their birth, defines them

Today, a lot of gyms have come up, and the young men prefer going there, hence the Dom akhada is not so popular now

The dom raja at the dom akhara, the traditional body building equipment in the background

You may read the detailed article here

Now coming to the most important point, this was the reason I wanted to put this article in the Pilgrimage called Life series instead of the Death series

People have the desire to die in Varanasi and get cremated at the Manikarnika for salvation

Salvation comes to the one who has no desire left for salvation

Or no desires remaining; not even the desire to have no desire

No doubt the rituals as per the Vedas are of upmost importance, but people are fooled, today religion has become an Industry

It is after all, the Karma of the person which will be with him in his after life

The rich like to be cremated on sandalwood; will it make a difference to the progress of the soul?

When the super-rich and influential people visit temples; the temple committee members and priest are all out to please them, following them like dogs wagging their tails, the security staff of these VIP’s just push people around and they are made to sit close to the main idols and special prayers performed for them; are the Gods pleased with this?  

Watch this short video which shows the essence of bhakti

Cannot explain the essence of bhakti better than this

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