Death and the Hindu Culture

Visiting Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi was perhaps the most confounding, jaw-dropping, mystifying experience I have ever had in my life. Photography is strictly forbidden here, but with the the help of my friend and widely known local photographer @vinyatripathii we were granted access to shoot. 

Manikarnika is the main burning ghat, principally used for cremation as a funerary rite. At an auspicious location along the edge of the Ganges, funeral pyres have been burning continuously here, day and night, for hundreds of years.

It’s estimated that 200-300 bodies are disposed of at this one location daily. The faithful of all castes, and from all over Hinduism, are burned to ashes at Manikarnika. 

For devout Hindus, death is just another process in the cycle of life. Painless and insignificant, it is a very clinical affair. You would be hard-pressed to see any emotional reactions of any kind from anyone in attendance. Many come to Varanasi’s ghats to wait out their last days at ashrams built and used specifically for this purpose. 

Along the alleys of the Ghat, massive piles of wood are stacked stories-high, lining its entrances. Every pyre’s fuel log is first purified in the River Ganges, then carefully weighed to determine the price of the cremation, with sandalwood being the most-expensive and coveted. 

Men known as doms, an ancient lower caste that handles cremations, wash their hands before handling the corpses. 

They then place the bodies on bamboo stretchers, dunk them into the Ganges, and adorn them in colorful ornate silk shrouds in preparation for disposal. 

The burning of one’s body upon their demise is fundamental in Hinduism, as the soul is purified and freed from the body. The ritual’s many stages must be done so correctly, or their soul will not reach the afterlife. 

[*WARNING: The images below you may find disturbing.*]

Children under the age of two and Brahman priests, considered uncorrupted and without sin, do not require purification by fire at death, and are therefore afforded a ceremonial burial.

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