Manikarnika, The Burning Ghat – Varanasi

Having become Time itself, I destroy the world here, O Goddess! ~Shiva, Padma Purana 1.33.14

As I said Varanasi has been one of the most intriguing trips I have made. Never have I felt a city so full of going ons. Just inane, often crazy, some brilliant, other bizarre going ons. Just going on. Like Life. Just going on.

Manikarnika Ghat is a place you must visit, but it is not for the faint-hearted. It is probably the most ancient ‘chitta’ – fire to burn dead bodies and it has been going on non-stop at this Ghat for years & years….

Varanasi is a sacred and holy place to cremate your dead. Hindus from all over the country and maybe even the world are bringing their dead near and dear ones to Kashi, Manikarnika Ghat, to burn them here.

Piles of wood greet you at this ghat. The traditional Hindu burning methods here is to make a squarish pile of wood, logs stacked in a Jenga pattern. The dead body which is brought in by families and near ones is first dipped into the Ganga then put onto the fire for burning it to dust & ashes. There are certain sect of people who tend to these chittas and rituals at this ghat. From what I have read, the care-taking is passed on from generation to generation. Also these sects are considered to be lowly untouchables… I find it surprising though because after all this place is considered as epitome of spiritual energy….This never ending chitta (fire).

At a time there could be anywhere from 4 to 40 dead bodies being burned. Some covered partly, some fully covered and even adorned with ritualistic material.

Sometimes after the burning, some body parts are still left. They maybe swept into the river by the caretakers. Maybe to make space for the next chitta. These half burnt parts of the body don’t sink into the river, they just float around the river. You may be walking the surreal ghat, and might see this mutilated, half burnt body part floating nearby.

Yes, it is not for the faint-hearted.

As the body part floats and dwindles into the flow and ebb of the sacred river. Pious men and women are taking their holy dips in this river. Gentle boats and even noisy barges are making rounds of the river with tourists, devotees and people with other purposes.

Manikarnika Submerged Shiva Temple
Submerged Shiva Temple

Manikarnika or The Burning Ghat is just one of the many ghats of Varanasi. It is the main ghat where bodies are burnt. If you walk a little ways beyond the burning ghat area, you will come to the submerged temple. If you have perused photos of Varanasi then this submerged temple photo is conspicuous.

Manikarnika Submerged Temple
This temple sank into the river due to weight of the ghat… at least thats what I could find out…

Opposite this submerged temple is another section of construction which has sunk into the ground. No excavations and archaeology…. the city just grows on top of these over the years. Even now the city exudes a sense of ancient plans, purposes and mysticism. A lot of the original constructions are entirely changed, removed or crumbled and the city just grows over it.

Manikarnika Ghat
A sunken palace maybe?

Strictly speaking the submerged temple is on Scindia ghat, while the burning grounds is Jalasi ghat. So what is Manikarnika – any why is it synonymous with these other stuff? There is a small kund just close to the submerged temple. Dirty, filthy, green with moss and filled with garbage. When I saw it, it was so decrepit that I ignored it. This kund is called Manikarnika – apparently Shiva’s earrings fell into this kund when it was made. Hence it is called Mani(bead)Karni(ear)ka. The ghat is famous as Manikarnika. Since the burning grounds and submerged temples are totally adjacent to this kund… they are all referred often as Manikarnika.
Why is the kund so badly kept? I have no idea….

Manikarnika Ghat
Oh yea cows are every where in Banaras! You can see the Tarakeshwar Temple Shikhara rising up and in the distance you the smoke from a pyre on the burning ghat terrace.

I was very curious to find out the deity at Manikarnika/Jalasi. I saw a descrepit Tarakeshwara temple here. Tarakeshwar is a form of Shiva, relevant here at the cremation place as the dead cross from life into death. I couldn’t really see any other deity temples here at the ghat itself. There seemed to be a chamber if I went down to the burning ghat itself – maybe there is a deity there. I didn’t go to see, so can’t say.

In bold writing on one of these ancient structures with crude red were the words “Killer of Cows should be hanged”. Care and love for animals? Maybe, but mostly religious fervor and superstitions are rampant. I saw many of the animals including cows in deplorable conditions. Heard some very poignant and ghastly story of a cow who was injured in an accident, just left right there on the road, to die! Many days the cow suffered. Killing it would have been a mercy. The stink and unhygienic mess from the cows fluids and bleeding also just left out there…

A crazy, crazy place.

If you walk up towards the city through the various lanes from this ghat, there are many temples. Including one of Devi Manikarnika. The area around this ghat is the middle core of the city. It is also called Siddha Kshetra – a place where a lot of the popular temples are.

Perused a lot of literature on Kashi, some old books, even translated version of vernacular ones. The stories in this place are miraculous and deeply intriguing. In this tapestry of criss-crossing religious threads there are some really intriguing gems twinkling about. As a traveller it can be a soul stirring experience to traverse here.

  • Shawn

    Oh. My. Gosh. Priyanka, your pictures are amazing! Enjoyed reading about this holy city. I def agree, Varanasi is not for the faint-hearted, and that would be me in this context…Smelling burning flesh and knowing it’s human bodies would just do me in!

    • 🙂 I am too frank about stuff. Usually people don’t mention these things so people go and visit.
      It’s worth a visit Shawn, just maybe not the first time you come to India I guess.