Varanasi, city of lights, city of color and city of spiritualism hosts the most ancient cremation grounds in the Indian subcontinent. Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat are the most ancient, of which the former is considered to have existed well before Bhagiratha went into penance to bring down the Ganges and have her flow over the cursed ashes of his ancestors. Since then, mere mortals have considered death and burning of their bodies sacred near these waters, a road to salvation.
Varanasi has 98 sacred water fronts, which are believed to form the cosmic frame linking 14 bhavana kosas of the human body. Among 84 ghats, 5 are considered to be supremely auspicious. These are Asi, Dashashwamedha, Manikarnika, Panchganga and Adikeshava. These are the Panchathirthas, and are believed to be symbols of the cosmic body of Lord Vishnu; Asi at the head, Dashashwamedha at the chest, Manikarnika at the navel, Panchganga at the thighs and Adikeshava at the feet. Manikarnika is considered to be at the center of the 5 thirthas, the navel of the universe from which blooms life.
According to mythology, Vishnu went into tapasya (penance) that generated heat and being the source of life he created this world. Vishnu is known to have dug a pit here at Manikarnika with his chakra (discus) and the resulting sweat due to his severe penance filled this pit with sacred water. It is also believed that Shiva’s earring fell into this pit due to which the name of this Ghat came to be known as Manikarnika (jeweled earring), and the pit is called Manikarnika Kund. What remains here is the foot print of Vishnu, Vishnu’s Charan Paduka, which is a pair of feet on a lotus pedestal carved into marble, at the very same place where he is believed to have performed tapasya.
This ghat brings death and release face to face with the creation of the universe. While the power of life was generated at the charan paduka of Vishnu, the actual cremation of bodies takes place at Jalsayin ghat, the whole of which is called the Manikarnika Ghat. Jalsayin, or “the sleeper of the water” reflects the beauty of Vishnu asleep on Sesha Naga, during the cosmic deluge consuming the ashes of the cosmos, symbolizing the endless cycle of time, the flame of which burns continuously at the Manikarnika Ghat, a flame that never dies. Sesha also means remainder; the ashes that remain that get washed away by the Ganges, and lose themselves into the cosmic ocean. Vishnu is the seed of life, a lotus from whose navel grows and brings alive Brahma who creates the world. Cremation takes place here, where life and death meet, where creation meets delusion.
This ghat symbolizes that which is real with time bringing Lord Shiva and Vishnu to the same sthal (place). Apart from Vishnu’s sacred charan paduka, that contains the power of life in his toe, the Manikarnika Ghat also hosts Manikarnika Devi’s shrine and Lord Shiva in the form of Tarakeshwar linga.
As the story of Swami Ramakrishna Paramahamsa also reveals, when he traveled in a boat down the Ganges advancing towards the Manikarnika Ghat, he had a vision of Annapurna Devi holding a corpse in her lap. Lord Shiva in shining brilliance, bends over the corpse, whispering the Taraka mantra into the ears of the dead carving the path for them and helping them cross into the after life. Maybe that is why a person is considered truly dead after his kabala (skull) cracks when the body is cremated. The silent spell of the Lord whispering the Taraka mantra was visible only to Paramahamsa, revealing the real beauty of life, of death and of the journey beyond in the hands of Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu and Devi.
Such is the reality of life, of death, a reminder every day with every corpse that burns, that there is a world beyond and death is not the end. This reality of living echoes all over Manikarnika Ghat and reverberates at the Charan Paduka of Lord Vishnu.