Manikarnika Ghat - Photography - M1key - Michal Huniewicz

Manikarnika Ghat Photography - M1key - Michal Huniewicz

Manikarnika Ghat by Michal Huniewicz

While in Varanasi, I could not miss Manikarnika Ghat, also known as the Burning Ghat, where bodies of Hindus have been cremated for thousands of years. The pictures show you the last hours of a human body, the Hindu way, after it enters the Ghat to the moment it ceases to exist.

Hindus believe that dying and being cremated in Varanasi, the holiest place of Hinduism, liberates their souls from the cycle of death and rebirth - they achieve moksha (nirvana). [2] This, apparently, is the reason why the mourners present at the site are not overwhelmed with sorrow, but chat, often laugh, or play cards. "Worn-out garments are shed by the body: worn-out bodies are shed by the dweller within... New bodies are donned by the dweller, like garments", said Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita. [9, p. 124]

While preparing the gallery, I read the ancient Garuda Purana, a sacred text that is only supposed to be read when preparing for a funeral - otherwise it's inauspicious, unlucky. It was a great read though (quite psychedelic, too) and provided me with useful information.

All my Indian galleries are accompanied by good Indian music. Not this time though; I thought this song had the appropriate sound for this gallery:

Although arranged in a logical order, the photos actually show a couple of different bodies in different stages of the ritual.
Thanks to Ammar Hassan (captions).
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21.
Uploaded on: 2013-03-29.

Manikarnika Ghat

Manikarnika Ghat
"Powerful death, unexpectedly, like a serpent, approaches him stricken with bodily and mental pain, yet anxiously hoping to live." [19, 1:27]
This is Manikarnika Ghat, the primary cremation ghat in Varanasi (another, smaller one exists as well). [1] Before entering, tourists are asked to show respect, including not listening to music - I was told to put my earphones in my backpack.
Ghat is a Southern Asian term, and it refers to a series of steps leading down to a body of water, particularly a holy river. There are plenty of all sorts of ghats in Varanasi. Burning ghats exist not only in Varanasi - there are more in India, and there is also one in Kathmandu, Nepal. [3]
Notice the piles of wood for burning, relaxed cows and goats, family members and spectators observing the cremations, and a couple of boats with tourists.
ISO 1000, 11mm, f/5.0, 1/125s.

As seen from Ganges

As seen from Ganges
This is how most tourists experience the Burning Ghat - from a boat on the Ganges, in relative proximity to the site. Some, as these ones, choose not to look. Just behind them there is a large heap of still hot human ashes.
I was told that in some of the buildings in the back poor and sick people lived, awaiting their death and cremation, but visiting was not allowed due to the risk of contracting a disease.
Notice the body on a bier and wrapped in an orange shroud, drying on the stairs after being immersed in the river.
ISO 280, 29mm, f/6.3, 1/125s.

Piles of wood

Piles of wood
Here we are, back on the shore. What you see in the picture are countless logs of relatively cheap wood (mango wood that is, as opposed to sandalwood) used for burning human bodies. However, since about 9 million people die in India annually [4], for practical reasons other methods of cremations are being introduced that utilise electricity or gas instead.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/500s.

Scale

Scale
A typical funeral pyre requires 300 kilograms of wood to burn the body sufficiently [6], although, as we will see, not everything is reduced to ashes.
Cremation is the preferred way of disposing of dead bodies among Hindus, as fire is believed to purify - and therefore the individual's spiritual essence is freed from the body, so that he or she can be reborn. Children below 2 (27 months according to the Garuda Purana [19, 10:92]) and holy men are buried, as they do not require spiritual purification. Also bodies of criminals and those who committed suicide are buried, because Hindus believe they cannot be purified (their sins are too great; they will be purified eventually, by hell fire). [1; 5, p. 99] Similarly, people with certain diseases are not cremated, but dropped after death to the bottom of the river directly (which actually spreads the disease). [1]
If the cremation process (and that includes the rituals as well as burning) is not done properly, the soul will not find its way in the afterlife, and return to haunt relatives. [1]
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/250s.

Down the ghat

Down the ghat
A body is taken down to the Ganges on a bier, wrapped in an orange shroud. Because a body should be burnt within 24 hours from death, you'll see quite a few carts and bundles in Varanasi - those are often dead bodies taken to either of the burning ghats. My friends saw one that was accidentally pushed, and that caused a dead arm to slip outside through the sheets.
It is the closest male relative that carries out the funerary rites. [5, p. 100]. If you have a close look at the pictures in this gallery, the only women you might see there (excluding female bodies) are foreign tourists . Apparently, women have not been allowed to cremation sites because they might cry - and the funeral is supposed to show respect rather than sadness. [1]
"Because the departed has inevitably to drink the bitter tears let fall by his relatives, and they should not weep when sorrow is useless." [19, 11:4]
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/320s.

To the river

To the river
The custom of cremation might be more than 4 thousand years old, but it is unclear how and when it came about in the first place. [8] At Manikarnika Ghat, I was told that the fire used for cremations in Varanasi has been burning constantly for about 3 thousand years. An old woman in the ghat area (in one of the buildings where women were allowed) touched the ash produced by that very fire, and smeared it on my forehead while whispering a prayer.
Even a modern cremation site I visited in Jaipur allowed no women inside, and the only ones were indeed a deceased lady and one of my travel companions - as I mentioned before in my Highlights from India gallery, those gender-related rules and traditions usually don't apply to foreign women (just as it is the case in the Middle East).
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/500s.

Goat

Goat
Smoke from the steaming pile of human ashes, which is located to the right.
"Through stagnant water, thick with scum and rotting flowers, we drifted towards the burning ghats, where a coil of smoke rose into the air from a mass of ashes no longer recognizable as a body. One pyre, neatly stacked in a rectangular pile, had just been lit, and the corpse swathed in white, protruded from the middle." [11, p. 509]
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/250s.

Last steps

Last steps
The body before being immersed in the river. It is the family members that take it to the Ganges on a bamboo bier. The one in white is the closest male relative.
"He who carries his dead father on shoulder or back or hip pays off the debt of constant parental kindnesses." [19, 10:13]
ISO 200, 34mm, f/4.2, 1/320s.

Bathed in Ganges

Bathed in Ganges
This only takes a couple of seconds, the body is then taken out.
ISO 200, 105mm, f/5.3, 1/200s.

Out to dry

Out to dry
Afterwards, the body is taken back onto the stairs.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/5.0, 1/200s.

Relatives

Relatives
It is on the stairs where it is left for about 2 hours to dry, sometimes left on its own, and then surrounded by cows or goats that nibble on the flowers - and even urinate on the body, which I saw with my own eyes. It doesn't seem to bother anyone.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/500s.

Deep in thought

Deep in thought
Two men standing in silence as a body is put on the stairs to dry.
ISO 280, 18mm, f/5.0, 1/125s.

Body position

Body position
There are no coffins or graves in the Hindu world. Is it a better way of disposing the bodies than burial? Here is an interesting description of a grave, from Ancient Funeral Monuments from 1631: "half fair and beautiful; the external part of superficies thereof being seriously beautiful and adorned, and having nothing within but dreadful darkness, loathsome stink and rottenness of bones" [10, p. IX]
Notice the body on the left is lying on the side.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/320s.

Already dry

Already dry
This body is now sufficiently dry, and is about to be taken by the family members to the burning pit.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/5.0, 1/160s.

Unwrapping

Unwrapping
The burning pits are located on four different levels, one for each caste (I have briefly described Indian castes in my Highlights from India gallery). The people in the picture are from the Kshatriya (warrior) caste.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/5.0, 1/160s.

Bamboo bier

Bamboo bier
Death is believed to be contagious [1], and it is only a certain subcaste of the Untouchables that is allowed to touch dead bodies (for a short description of the Untouchables, please visit my Highlights from India gallery); its members are called the Doms. It is said that their work is so terrible, that when a new child is born into their caste, they weep, and when a Dom dies, they celebrate, as the deceased person is now relieved from their macabre responsibilities. [1]
ISO 560, 18mm, f/5.0, 1/125s.

Mouth

Mouth
The Doms charge for the cremation itself, but also take a cut from the wood sold near the ghats. As you can imagine, the price of the wood there is very high. Since they are the only ones allowed to perform the cremations, the Doms have effectively established a monopoly, and have become wealthy.
The bodies are burnt with whatever wood the family can afford, and if it's not enough, the body remains half-burnt. [1] It is even said that the wealthiest man in Varanasi was a Dom (at least in the eighties) [Geoffrey Ward, Smithsonian magazine, September 1985]. His is the other burning ghat though - Harischandra Ghat. He doesn't own Manikarnika - "Manikarnika belongs to Shiva" [12].
ISO 500, 40mm, f/5.0, 1/125s.

Incense

Incense
Joss sticks burning at the cremation site.
ISO 1100, 38mm, f/5.0, 1/125s.

Unwrapped

Unwrapped
The body is freed from the rope and ready to be placed on the pyre.
ISO 360, 24mm, f/5.0, 1/125s.

Onto the pyre

Onto the pyre
Notice the Dom has now appeared, and is standing in the background; also, see the two men on the right holding bags with various substances to be added to the pyre a few moments later.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/5.0, 1/160s.

White shroud

White shroud
The Dom begins to put wood on top of the body. This is important, as heat causes muscles to contract, and if it wasn't for the heavy wood placed on the person's chest, they could literally sit up while being burnt. (Although it could be just a popular myth. [21, ch. 3])
ISO 200, 130mm, f/5.6, 1/160s.

Last touch of the wind

The relatives have one final look at their deceased family member's face. The cotton balls were placed in body cavities to prevent it from leaking.
ISO 200, 90mm, f/5.3, 1/125s.

Funeral pyre

Funeral pyre
As previously mentioned, the wood most commonly used for cremations is mango wood, as it is affordable. More wealthy families may choose to use the much more expensive sandalwood instead. The poorest on the other hand may just use cow dung, and some simply throw the body directly into the river.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/5.0, 1/200s.

Kite

Kite
This is most likely incense, could be black musk from Nepal, but I am not exactly sure.
Note the kite in the sky.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/5.0, 1/160s.

Butter

Butter
Clarified (and edible) butter called ghee smeared on the wood. In the old days, ghee was also used to fill the body before burning. [1]
ISO 280, 56mm, f/5.0, 1/125s.

Sandalwood

Sandalwood
Sandalwood powder cancels the smell of burning hair. [18] The place indeed does not have an unpleasant smell, which, I noticed, was a source of pride for some of the workers.
ISO 450, 105mm, f/5.3, 1/125s.

Pyre set ablaze

Pyre set ablaze
The man setting the fire is probably the eldest son (the closest male relative). His head is shaved and he is wearing white our of respect.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/5.0, 1/200s.

Smoke

Smoke
Suddenly... a cloud of smoke is released from the pyre. The Dom is now going to make sure the fire keeps burning.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/5.0, 1/200s.

Fire

Fire
The fire spreading in the pyre.
ISO 360, 70mm, f/5.0, 1/125s.

Flames

Flames
Before long, most of the pyre is on fire. Notice the feet have become separated.
ISO 200, 32mm, f/5.0, 1/250s.

Feet

It takes three to four hours for a body to burn.
The heat is unbelievable. It is literally painful to walk near a burning pyre, and unlike every body else close to the fire, I had no face protection, and had to cover my camera with my hands.
ISO 200, 32mm, f/5.0, 1/250s.

View from the top

View from the top
In India, touching people with your feet is considered disrespectful, and so is walking or jumping over them. Unfortunately, I wasn't aware of that, and in Manikarnika Ghat I literally jumped over a dead body, because the area was very crowded and that was the only way I could go.
ISO 360, 11mm, f/5.0, 1/125s.

Keeping the fire burning

Keeping the fire burning
Hindus believe that the soul leaves the body once the skull explodes from the heat. If it doesn't, they help it crack with a bamboo stick. [19, 10:56] They also use a stick to break large bones that refuse to crumble under the heat (usually the breastbone or the pelvis). [13]
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/1250s.

Not everything always burns

So long as there is enough wood, the Doms make sure every part of body is burnt. The feet often have to be added back to the fire, as they stick out of the pyre; and this is what is happening in this picture.
"Sometimes they hoisted the half of a skeleton into the air, then slammed it down and beat it with the pole, breaking it up so that it would burn better. They hoisted skulls up in the same way and banged and battered them. The sight was hard to bear [...]" -- Mark Twain, who visited Varanasi. [17]
ISO 640, 11mm, f/5.0, 1/125s.

Extinguishing the fire

Extinguishing the fire
Once the cremation is finished, the fire is extinguished with water from the Ganges. The ashes are collected and thrown into the Ganges. The process does produce quite a lot of half-burnt body parts, which also make it to the river. To solve the problem of dead bodies polluting the river, tens of thousands of snapping turtles were released into the river to devour human remains. [14] They weigh up to 35 kg, and are trained not to harass living people bathing in the Ganges.
"He who drinks the water of the Ganges, heated by the rays of the sun is freed from all births and goes to the abode of Hari." [19, 9:26]
ISO 200, 34mm, f/4.2, 1/400s.

Tossed in the river

Tossed in the river
The bones that remain (as mentioned before, it is often the breastbone or the pelvis) are carried between two bamboo sticks, and then tossed into the river. Sometimes they wash up right back at Manikarnika Ghat, and it is not rare to see a dog gnawing it calmly - which is considered auspicious.
This is also where George Harrison's ashes were scattered, according to some sources. [1; 20]
ISO 200, 32mm, f/4.2, 1/640s.

Sleeping dog

Sleeping dog
According to the World Health Organization, "there are no health advantages of cremation over burial, but some communities may prefer it for religious or cultural reasons. Factors against it are the amount of fuel required by a single cremation (approx 300 kg wood) and the smoke pollution caused. For this reason, cremation sites should be located at least 500m downwind of dwellings." [6] (Which in Varanasi they are not.)
I, too, ended up covered in ashes, just like this dog. In fact, it was in my hair, my nose, my mouth, everywhere - I must say it made a rather strong impression on me, and I still remember the smell, the heat, and the atmosphere of that place.
ISO 360, 35mm, f/4.2, 1/125s.

Manikarnika Ghat worker

Manikarnika Ghat worker
The burning process at Manikarnika Ghat never stops, and between two and three hundred bodies are burnt every day. [7]
As a kid, I must have read about the Burning Ghat and created my own image of it in my head. I then forgot about it completely and only remembered again in Varanasi. The reality didn't quite match my imagination - there were fewer steps, and less steep, and the place wasn't as gloomy. Not that I was disappointed, Varanasi is my #1 India location.
ISO 200, 11mm, f/5.0, 1/160s.

On the other side

On the other side
The bones that didn't crumble completely and were thrown into the river wash up also here, on the other side of Ganges; and here too they are only a morsel for stray dogs. More still, whole dead bodies are dumped into the river illegally everywhere in India, and some also end up devoured by dogs. [15]
All of that makes Varanasi a very strange and enriching experience for a traveller; and it is striking how much the Hindu approach to death is different to the Western one. "It is a curious people. With them, all life seems to be sacred except human life." said Mark Twain. [17] But was he right? Or is it that the Indians simply have the courage to look death right in the eye, the courage that we usually lack?
I really don't know what to make of all this.
ISO 280, 60mm, f/4.8, 1/125s.