December 15th, 2012

London

Postcard From India: Manikarnika

Manikarnika is the burning ghat. Here in Varanasi, a ghat is steps leading down to the river, large stone stairs in the river bank. There are ghats for miles, each with significance based on the temple it’s near, or the Indian historical or mythical figure it’s named for. There are evening rituals, aarti, at several of the ghats—synchronized chanting, fire-waving, music through loudspeakers turned to eleven, and lotus-leaf boats with tiny candles set on the water to honor the living and the dead. At Manikarnika, on a steep, stepped river bank, the dead are cremated.

You know you’re getting close to the ghat when you start passing stalls selling offerings—folded swaths of cloth, sweets and garlands of marigolds and chrysanthemums. Then you pass the wood yards, where head-high bundles of logs are weighed out and sold. And then you’re passed by small processions, four or six men chanting and carrying over their heads a bamboo stretcher with a cloth-wrapped body.

At the water’s edge, there are as many as eight pyres going while others are stacked with wood or having their ashes raked. Cows wander through the dirt, nosing at still-smoldering coals, stepping over bodies that have been dipped in the water of the Ganges and now wait their turn. I stand on the walkway above the fires, watching, dupatta held tight over my mouth and nose against the smoke. To my right, I see a piece of wood protruding from the near end of a pyre. Knobby and lighter brown, it looks exactly like a face.

No, it’s a face.

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rezendi says human flesh smells like bacon. I'm glad I had a scarf over my nose. Nothing should threaten my ability to enjoy bacon.