Where to begin. On a slope up from the Ganges lies the Manikarnika Ghat, that famous Indian crematorium we’ve always known about but not quite believed was real. I was rowed a short way from the hotel to the Manikarnika Ghat on two evenings, and one morning I went there for an informal but still fairly in-depth tour. No photos allowed of the actual burning so you have only my poor words, and this is certain to be a time when my store of adjectives and adverbs fall short of the need.
There are six or eight concrete platforms with steel side bars that rise from the river on a fairly sharp incline, stopping at the base of what once were imposing buildings The platforms are lined up at different levels on the hillside. At the top, large chunks of wood are stacked into piles; there are also some few other open type structures. Otherwise it’s mostly bare packed earth with the usual cows and dogs lazing about.
Barges are constantly unloading the wood which is expensive sandalwood that overpowers the odors from the already-decomposing bodies as they burn. There is a hearse-boat that brings bodies from all over India pulled up at the waters’ edge.
During my daytime visit, only one body arrived; it was wrapped in simple cotton pieces and carried on a stretcher of bamboo. The recently-passed person was unloaded and then immersed in the river a few times for purification after having rested in the family home for visitations during the past two days. He/she was then laid out, still in the dripping sheets, on the steps leading up the hill to dry out for an hour or so. There were two or three other recently departed souls ahead, wrapped after this initial drying period in prettier cloths with color and glitter and ribbon. A worker explained to me that before the actual cremation the shiny stuff will be removed because much of it is plastic, and the body will proceed into the fire in only a simple wrap.
Apparently the wood is mostly placed on top of the body as it lies on the concrete bed. A body had recently finished burning near where I was sitting with only the skull left in the ashes.
The chest/rib cages of men and the pelvic bone structures of women are the last to fully burn so in some cases they are pulled from the ashes and thrown into the river.
Six categories of living creatures cannot be cremated. Children and pregnant women (babies and children are pure so there is no need for a purification rites); it’s the same for holy men, snake-bit humans and people with small pox. Animals are not cremated…nor killed…I’m told. Although obviously that means only certain categories since chicken dishes seem plentiful here.
The site/crematorium has been owned and operated by the same family for generations. They are of the caste still called the Untouchables (although now there are more politically correct terms). In fact only Untouchables are allowed to oversee the handling of bodies and burial of people.
In the daytime this was all unreal, dreamlike…thick clouds of smoke…stacks of buff-colored wood, a small number of workers moving busily about between the resident animals, still bodies; sweeping up, everything into the river. The family member who will light the fire for their loved one is shaved completely and then bathes in Ganges to purify himself for his task. Only the men of the family can directly participate because, I was told, women get too emotional and have been known to throw themselves into the fires of their burning husbands or grown children.
The night scenes, looking on from the boats gathered round, is when the tableau becomes truly surreal. Six to eight fires burning briskly, crackling, snapping, smoking. On the bank they unload the tightly-shrouded bodies which are dipped in the river, and then laid out for that hour or so of drying. Then onto the pyre. You can just see the outlines of the family members gathered on the different levels and, always, the cows and dogs who live where they choose are front and center.
Flames flicker, shadows drift, chanting sooths and renders the scene even more otherworldly. It’s beautiful. Not macabre. Can I say a ‘hellish’ beauty…
I have a great desire to feel comfortable with death. I am close to or in that age category called old-old so now would be the time to separate fear of the unknown from fear of the process, and then try to come to terms with each. Yes, easier said than done. This visit to the Ganges and the Manikarnika Ghat is part of trying to get under that tough skin of the unknown, of knowing more about how cultures approach death generally. We’ve removed ourselves as far from it as we can in the west. We kill people with assault rifles and drones and then stack flowers up somewhere and utter pieties at all of the funerals; we kill animals out of eye and ear range and then pretend that tasty meat dish arrived at our table with no suffering or death involved.
Here in the flames of the Manikarnika Ghat, it’s obvious, it is up close and personal, frightening but touchable in some way I can’t really explain.
I meant to find some meaningful piece of prose or poetry to include here since this powerful experience deserves more than my limited language. I couldn’t find just the right thing but here are a few poems for your consideration and edification! All from the Hello Poetry site.
Vikings son (RH 78 Feb 2015)
Up on the hill.
Stood the Vikings son.
King of the land.
Now ruled everyone
Flames licked the boat
the cremation took place
The Vikings did gather
pain in their face
At the Cremation Ghat (Pradip Chattopadhyay Aug 2016)
I’m reading poetry at the cremation ghat
amid chanting of God’s name
while ferrying and burning the dead.
The noise unsettles me a bit
as sets me thinking of my own death
that by all means seems closer than farther.
Yet I get the relieving feel
reading poems would heal
all the agonies of my flesh
and take me to that spiritual level
where I would take death as
passing into another dimension.
I’m not much of a religious person
but have always felt devoted to my kindred
seeking transcendence through them.
The best thing I’m hoping right now
is when I burn
someone would amid chanting of God’s name
read poetry at the burning ghat.
The following might have come straight from one of my bloody detective novels but I swear it’s from Hello Poetry. In the cremation category.
Smoky (Knit Personality Oct 2016)
Smokes in a chair
A pile of ashes
That once had eyeballs and eyelashes
Wafts through the air
Aroma of cremated human flesh.
A single foot remains,
As raw as the brains
In my freezer.
And my all-time favorite.
The Cremation of Sam Mcgee by Robert Service
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee
Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee,
where the cotton blooms and blows
Why he left his home in the South to roam
’round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold but the land of gold
seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way
that he’d sooner live in Hell.
On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way
over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold
it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze
till sometimes we couldn’t see,
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one
to whimper was Sam McGee.
And that very night, as we lay packed tight
in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead
were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap”, says he,
“I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you
won’t refuse my last request.”
Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no;
then he says with a sort of moan,
“It’s the cursed cold, and it’s got right hold
till I’m chilled clean through to the bone
Yet ‘taint being dead-it’s my awful dread
of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair,
you’ll cremate my last remains.
A pal’s last need is a thing to heed,
so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn
but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day
of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all
that was left of Sam McGee.
There wasn’t a breath in that land of death,
and I hurried, horror-driven
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid,
because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say.
“You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you
to cremate these last remains”.
Now a promise made is a debt unpaid,
and the trail has its own stern code,
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb
in my heart how I cursed that load!
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight,
while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows–
Oh God, how I loathed the thing!
And every day that quiet clay
seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent
and the grub was getting low.
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad,
but I swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing,
and it hearkened with a grin.
Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge,
and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice
it was called the Alice May,
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit,
and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here”, said I, with a sudden cry, “is my
Some planks I tore from the cabin floor
and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around,
and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared
such a blaze you seldom see,
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal,
and I stuffed in Sam McGee.
Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like
to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled,
and the wind began to blow,
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled
down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak
went streaking down the sky.
I do not know how long in the snow
I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about
ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said,
“I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked”.
Then the door I opened wide.
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm,
in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile,
and he said, “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear
you’ll let in the cold and storm–
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee,
it’s the first time I’ve been warm”.
Out of curiosity, have you read (or heard of) Caitlyn Doughty’s “From Here to Eternity: Traveling the Globe to Find the Good Death”?
I had not heard of it…but I believe I’ll look into it…I find myself ever more interested the older I get…not surprisingly I suppose. Thanks for the info…and for reading my post.
i would like to propose a correction. the caste of the family who cremate the dead are not called untouchables, The name of the caste is “dom” as per mythology they are said to be server of “Yum” (the hindu god of death). Yet since they have been involved in that work and many superstition related to that jobs they are considered untouchables. I understand why you wrote so. It’s not that uncommon to develop such understanding that is misleading……
Hi…thanks so much for your comment…I will indeed look at changing my language. It will be a day or two before I can work on it…but I just wanted you to know I appreciate your input. Marjorie