Written by Ananya Deb | Guided by Sophiya Islam
What is the meaning of cultural places in the Indian urban context? How does the ritual of cremation along the ghats contribute to the urban character of Varanasi, a cultural hub in north India?
Dating back to the 11th century BC, Varanasi is steeped in tradition and is stretched out over a seven-kilometre length along the banks of the Holy Ganga. Manikarnika Ghat, popularly known as the 'Great Cemetery', is one of the major ghats in the long stretch of the holy river Ganga that flows through the city of Varanasi. This ghat is one of the two most important cremation ghats in Varanasi and marks the southern boundary of the city of Varanasi.
Temples along the bank of River Ganga © Dennis Jarvis
The process of cremation in Varanasi is sought to be a stepwise ritual, starting off with the public procession of death by the family and the relatives. The streets that are usually activated by such processions have transformed to accommodate shops offering commodities for last rite prayers like flowers, cloth, incense sticks, wood etc.
A street in Varanasi © Juan Antonio Segal
An important event in this ritual is the process of seeking blessings at the Manikarnika temple. Hence, the Manikarnika temple acts as an important landmark within the precinct, connected to the streets that lead to the Ghat.
Manikarnika Ghat © Vivek Mishra
Dipping the body in the Holy Ganga represents the belief so as to grant moksha (salvation) to the soul. This part of the ritual is generally done alongside the river in the steps of the ghats, that appear as large open spaces, accommodating a heavy footfall during the peak hours.
Manikarnika Ghat at night © Jaegen T
Open spaces around the Ghat
The open spaces adjoining the Ghat has segregated platforms as resting spaces for offering prayers. These are connected to a large open space where the funeral pyre is arranged.
Open spaces around Manikarnika Ghat © Arian Zwegers
The final step of the ritual is marked by floating the ashes away in Ganga. The spatial character here implies that the Holy Ganga acts as an anchor for all the rituals associated with cremation.
Along the edge of Manikarnika Ghat © Ninara
Thus, the interconnected spaces from the streets to the Manikarnika Ghat and further to the Holy Ganga, highlight a sequential flow of rituals and activities. The historic city of Varanasi is a remarkable human settlement that portrays culture and interactions between people and nature.
But, the city is now facing various problems including water and air pollution, deterioration of old structures, unplanned densification, flooding, and neglect resulting in demolished hardscape at the Ghats. Adaptive preservation of urban heritage should be adopted, thus facilitating user comfort and enhancing the urban character of the ghat cities of India.