Monday, September 28, 2015

The Largest Cremation Site in Varanasi

On the western bank of the Ganges in the ancient city of Varanasi, the fires of the Manikarnika Ghats have been burning for thousands of years. This holy city, in Uttar Pradesh, India, is the most sacred place on earth for Hindus and it is believed that if a person’s ashes are scattered here then their soul will finally achieve nirvana (moksha). But to liberate the soul, the worn-out body must first be burned. A series of stunning and rare images, captured by photographer Michal Huniewicz, give a remarkable insight into the last hours of the Hindu body at Manikarnika Ghats - the largest cremation site in Varanasi.

  Up to 300 people a day are cremated at this ‘burning ghat’, named for the steps that lead down to a body of holy water.For centuries, the old and sick have flocked to the site to die here on the banks of the Ganges, and special buildings on the site are reserved for those awaiting their final hours. But the atmosphere at the giant funeral site is not one of sorrow, as mourners instead laugh, chat and play cards as the funeral preparations are carried out.The Hindu attitude to death is not one of loss, but instead follows the idea of ‘shedding’ the worn-out body, as one might throw away clothes that are too worn-out to wear.

The Manikarnika Ghat fires in Varanasi is the most sacred place for Hindus to be cremated. Here, piles of wood are stacked for burning, cows and goats can be seen alongside male family members and spectators observing the cremations from boats on the river

A shrouded body is taken into the Ganges to be washed and prepared ready for cremation at the Manikarnika Ghats, where Hindus have been cremated to have their souls liberated from their bodies for thousands of years

Two tourists, who are encouraged to witness the ritual, sit in a boat on the Ganges in front of a large heap of hot human ashes in the background.

Death is believed to be contagious and it is only Doms, a subcaste of the Untouchables, that is allowed to touch dead bodies

Piles of mango wood logs, which are cheaper than sandalwood, are used for burning human bodies.

A body is taken down to the Ganges on a bier, wrapped in an orange shroud. It should be burnt in 24 hours of death

The body is taken down to be immersed in the river by family members on a bamboo bier. The man in white is the closest male relative to the deceased, who is tasked with carrying out the funerary rites. The only women that tend to be present are foreign tourists

The body is briefly immersed in water before being carried back up the stairs before the cremation begins

The bodies are left on the stairs for about two hours so they can dry before the cremation takes place nearby

When the body, which may have been left alone, is sufficiently dry it is taken by the family members to the burning pit

The bodies are left on the stairs, or ghats, for hours. Young boys, most probably relatives of the deceased, sit and wait

The Doms charge for the cremation itself, but also take a cut from the expensive wood sold near the ghats

The pits are located on four different levels, one for each caste. Those pictured are from the Kshatriya (warrior) caste

The body is freed from the rope and ready to be placed on the pyre and covered with the wood the family has bought

A typical funeral pyre requires 300 kilograms of wood to burn the body sufficiently.

Wealthier families may choose to use the much more expensive sandalwood instead of the cheaper mango wood, while the poorest may just use cow dung, and some simply throw the body directly into the river

Clarified (and edible) butter called ghee smeared on the wood. In the old days, ghee was also used to fill the body before burning

Sandalwood powder is poured over to cancel out the smell of burning hair. Surprisingly, this does not smell unpleasant

A relative scatters some sort of incense, possibly black musk from Nepal, over the remains before the wood is lit

The man lighting the pyre is likely to be the eldest son or closest male relative. He shaves his head and wears white out of respect

A cloud of smoke is released from the pyre. The Dom sits beside the cremation site to make sure the fire keeps burning

A dog lying at the ancient site is covered in ash from the fires of the Manikarnika Ghats

Heavy wood on top of the body is important as heat causes muscles to contract which could cause the body to sit up

Bamboo sticks are used to ensure the body is broken down in the fire as part of the Hindu practice of burning ghats

Cremation is preferred among Hindus as fire is believed to purify so the individual's spiritual essence can be freed from the body

Joss sticks and various incense are used at the site to avoid the place smelling of the hundreds of bodies cremated every day

An aerial photograph shows the fires burning at the Manikarnika Ghats on the banks of the Ganges from above

All photos credit: Michal Huniewicz
Via the Daily Mail

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