Every day at the MANIKARNIKA GHAT, the largest and most auspicious cremation ghat near the town of Vanarasi, State of Uttar Pradesh, Northern India around 200 bodies are cremated on wooden pyres along the river's edge. The ghat (steps leading down to the holy water) operates around the clock, every day of the year. A caste of Untouchables known as the Doms are the caretakers as such, of the ghats, and their role is to protect the ever-burning flame at the Temple. This flame is believed to have been created by Lord Shiva, and has been burning for over 3500 years! The Doms provide the cremation packages, which includes the purchasing of essential wood that is needed to burn the bodies, and assistance during the rituals (sometimes the Doms have to give the skulls a bit of a whack during the cremation in order for the soul to be released properly!) During the cremation rituals, special prayers (Puja's) are recited, as well as hymns and mantras. The eldest son or male family member is then required to light the pyre from the ever-burning flame which then starts the cremation fire. This process requires a lot of wood in order to cremate the body fully, so you can imagine what those who cannot afford the wood must have to go through! The richer you are, the more wood you can provide for your cremation. Once the cremation is complete, the ashes are then scattered into the Holly Waters of The Ganga (The Ganges), whereby MOKSHA ( Salvation ) can be achieved. In Hindu traditions, cremation is one of the rites of passage and the Ghats of Varanasi are considered one of the auspicious locations for this ritual. At the time of the cremation or "last rites", a "Puja" (prayer) is performed. Hymns and mantras are recited during cremation to mark the ritual.

Varanasi Manikarnika Ghat in Pictures (28)

The MANIKARNIKA GHAT, which is always at work, day or night. At this ghat there are logs stacked everywhere in piles seven and eight feet high. The wood is dark brown, hacked roughly to lengths of about five feet. In the street above the ghats the wood is stacked against the buildings. There is more wood in piles by the river and more arriving all the time in open boats that are moored by the river bank. Slight-built men step barefoot over the logs in the boats, each one loaded down with a pile of logs across his back. They make their way up the short sandy bank, past the fires and up to the piles of wood to replenish them. They offload their logs and make their way back to the river while other men build the stacks of wood in an endless cycle. There are ten or twelve fires on the ghats, burning in shallow ashy pits. Each one is a cremation. The obligation to light the funeral fire falls on the closest male family member. After he and other family members bathe the body in the Ganges, it is wrapped in a piece of cloth and placed on top of the pyre, where it is doused in butter oil and sandalwood dust. The eldest male mourner goes first to a small nondescript fire that is in the entrance to a temple just behind the fire pits. It is said that this fire has been burning continuously for three thousand years. He makes a bundle of reeds taken from a large pile of reeds that fills a recess, and he lights his bundle from the fire. Then he walks down to the body on the pyre, walks around it a number of times and then lights the fire. His last job is to take water in a clay pot from the Ganges, which he throws over his shoulder back onto the body. He does this five times, and the final time he throws the pot itself. It breaks and that ends his relationship with the deceased. It takes a lot of wood to burn a body properly and the cremation takes about three hours. Doms, men from a class of untouchables who work at the funeral ghats, turn and move the logs to ensure the burning is complete. The ribs of men and the hip bones of women rarely burn away to nothing. They are collected by the doms and deposited in the Ganges early in the morning each day. There are hundreds of men at the ghat. There are no women here even the wife of the deceased stays at home. There is smoke everywhere and a steady trickle of ash. Two or up to three hundred people are cremated here each day and cremations continue every day of the year. A few hundred yards south of this ghat is another smaller burning ghat. It is a simpler affair and from a distance looks simply like bodies being burned on a beach. Cremation purifies the sexual, so only married men and women are cremated. Holy men, children, those who are unmarried, those bitten by a snake, and those who are pregnant are weighted down with a stone and lowered directly into the Ganges. For Hindus, it is good to die and be cremated in Varanasi. Cremation must take place within 24 hours of death, so trucks are sometimes seen coming into the city from other towns, with the body lying in the open back of the truck and the relatives standing around the deceased. The type of wood used to build the pyres depends on the family’s choice. The rich prefer sandalwood while the poor are happy with any kind of wood. Bodies are generally dressed in a white shroud and sacred ash called “Vibhuti” is applied on the forehead. Flowers are also used to adorn the body. Typically, Doms will receive 20 to 50 bodies a day. “There are days when I earn just 300 rupees ($4.5) and days when I’ve made more than 6,000 rupees ($92),” said Dom Shyam Chaudhary. When a corpse enters the cremation grounds, you will see about 5 to 10 individuals surrounding the body. One tries to negotiate a good price for the firewood, while others sell ghee, incense sticks, flowers and other materials needed cremation. Once the corpse burns completely, the young children from the Dom family collect the clothes or jewels off the corpse and sell it in shops,” Sharma said. “Any wood and other materials which have not been used for the incineration are also sold or used in Dom households.”