Holy cremations boom in richer India

Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, India Trade is brisk as more people can afford to travel long distances to the cremation site

India's thriving economy has brought many advantages to the population, including the widening of access to a special kind of funeral at the holy city of Varanasi.

The man swung his heavy bamboo pole down upon the already half-incinerated corpse. It doubled up in a cloud of red embers.

His second blow shattered the skull. Then he used the pole to deftly stack the burning logs on top of the now fizzing and sizzling knot of flesh and bone.

He wiped the sweat from his face with his arm and stood back to survey his work. He seemed content and sat down on his haunches to watch the now blazing fire, encouraging it with a prod or a poke every now and then.

Sacred place

There were nine other funeral pyres burning on the beach of sun-baked mud alongside the swirling caramel-brown waters of the Ganges. Each one was tended by a similarly stick-thin man in a white dhoti armed with a large bamboo pole.

Each one contained its own sputtering, burning corpse.

Hindu pilgrims offer prayers while taking a ritual bath in the Ganges Bathing in the holy Ganges is believed to absolve one's sins

The scruffy patchwork of cremation fires, busy with mourners and men carrying great bundles of logs, looked to a Westerner like some medieval vision of hell but I was actually in one of the most sacred places in all India.

Manikarnika Ghat is in the Indian holy city of Varanasi. A ghat means a series of steps down to water.

There are 80 ghats lining the Ganges here in Varanasi - many with elaborate temples or palaces.

Almost all are used for bathing, the steps allowing pilgrims to wash in the holy waters. Manikarnika Ghat is one of two which specialise in the grisly business of human cremation.

These cremation ghats certainly do serve as a reminder of just how fragile human life is, though.

The funeral practices in the West insulate us from the reality of death. Here it was all too apparent that we are all just flesh and blood and bone.

The fires coughed out great plumes of sticky, black smoke. The smell - the taste - of burning fat was unmistakable.

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Half an hour amongst the pyres was enough for me and I retreated back to the temple complex at the top of the steps to escape the smoke and the ferocious heat.

There I met Gajanand Chowdhary, the man in charge of Manikarnika Ghat.

In the shade of the temple he told me that people bring their dead here because Manikarnika is reckoned to be the most auspicious place on earth for a Hindu to be cremated.

As he spoke, another corpse arrived on a bamboo stretcher. Six pall bearers pushed passed us carrying it on their shoulders.

The body was wrapped in a golden shroud and decorated with garlands of marigolds. We watched as they took it down to the Ganges where they washed it, cleansing the body before it was burnt.

"If you are burned here at Manikarnika Ghat," Gajanand continued unperturbed, "you will achieve moksha. The cycle of reincarnation will be broken and your soul will ascend straight to heaven."

He almost made it sound like an invitation, though not one I want to take him up on any time soon.

Brisk trade

The reason the ghat is so sacred, Gajanand explained, is because the cremation fires are lit by a flame that is believed to have emanated from Lord Shiva himself.

Idol of the Lord Shiva in religious procession Lord Shiva is said to have authority over death, rebirth and immortality

Shiva is the Hindu god of destruction or transformation and one of the most powerful in the entire pantheon.

"You want to see the flame?" he asked.

I nodded enthusiastically and Gajanand led me up a narrow staircase and along a crowded balcony. He gestured to an arch where a small wood fire was smouldering.

It did not look that impressive to me - someone was cooking a pan of rice on it, which rather detracted from its mystical significance.

As we stood talking, one of the cremation men pushed the pan aside and collected a few embers in a small earthenware pot.

"Another fire," Gajanand explained casually. "We now have up to 25 fires at a time."

Indeed, Manikarnika Ghat has never been busier.

The fires now burn 24 hours a day, seven days a week and the reason trade is so brisk is, it seems, simple.

As India gets richer and the road network more extensive and more reliable, more and more people are bringing their dead here to seek moksha.

A decade or so ago, it was only families in the direct vicinity of Varanasi who could bring their dead here.

Now it is not unusual for even quite poor families to travel great distances to bring a body to the cremation ghats.

We are used to hearing stories about how modern life makes the world more homogeneous but it seems that, here in India, modernity does not always undermine the old traditions.

Indeed the problem here in Varanasi now is that the funeral ghats are operating almost at capacity and, as Gajanand put it, the dead sometimes have to queue in the narrow alleyway outside the ghat.

A small price to pay, I reflect, for a swift ascent to heaven.

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