Manikarnika Ghat Photography - M1key - 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).  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,
Uploaded on: 2013-03-29.
"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).  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. 
Notice the piles of wood for burning, relaxed cows and goats, family members and spectators observing the cremations, and a couple of boats
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.
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 , for practical reasons other methods of cremations are being introduced
that utilise electricity or gas instead.
A typical funeral pyre requires 300 kilograms of wood to burn the body sufficiently , 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). 
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
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. 
"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]
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. 
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
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).
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]
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
"He who carries his dead father on shoulder or back or hip pays off the debt of constant parental kindnesses." [19, 10:13]
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.
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.
Death is believed to be contagious , 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. 
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.  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" .
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])
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.
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.
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.
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). 
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. 
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.  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]
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]
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." 
(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.
The burning process at Manikarnika Ghat never stops, and between two and three hundred bodies are burnt every day. 
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.
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.
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. 
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.