Stop 4: Jalasen and Manikarnika ghats
These ghats are exclusively for cremations. Other end-of-life rituals are also performed here to help the deceased achieve mukti/moksha. There is a Shiva temple on the ghat where a naturally occurring flame burns in the ground. This is the flame used to light the funeral pyres. Because the flame burns eternally, the funeral rites are performed 24x7 at this ghat. A few minutes after we left the Vishwanath temple, this place just creeped up on us. Lalit casually walked us over without warning. Only when an Aghori sadhu walked by me and I was suddenly surrounded by shops selling funeral pyre wood, it dawned on me where I am. The guide told my wife she had to stay out of the ghat because women weren't allowed but asked if I wanted to go see the funeral as a tourist. I declined. His nonchalance about observing people saying their final goodbyes struck me as anomalous. But then, this is the city that people come to await their demise. Dying and being cremated on the banks of the holy river grants you mukti (freedom) from the cycle of rebirth. So death is a happy occasion here, not to be mourned. This is one reason why women aren't allowed on the funeral site, Lalit tells us. "They cry a lot so the spirits feel bad and come back to Earth". Nothing sexist about that!
The story: I was told a multiplicity of myth for this ghat. They're all interesting and worth sharing:
1) Lord Vishnu told Lord Shiva to collect all body parts of Sati Ma and cremate her on the banks of the Ganges so that she may be reborn and marry him in her next life. To light the funeral pyre, he used his third eye. The fire still burns as an eternal flame below the Temple on the Jalasen ghat. Lord Shiva granted the Dom caste exclusive rights to perform the cremation rites at this ghat when he cremated his first wife. To this date, the same family carries on the legacy. Once an 'untouchable' caste, they are now considered the Kings of cremation: They set up the pyre, perform the rituals and use the still burning embers at the end of each day to cook the food in their house. I wonder if Shiva granted them the rights to protect from discrimination or whether they were the only ones willing to perform the less than savory tasks.
2) Manikarnika means diamond earring. Some say that Sati's earning fell on this site when Vishnu decimated her body with his Chakra. That's what makes this place a Shaktipeeth. Some others say that when Kali was pursuing the demon Raktabija, she was burning with rage. This rage melted her diamond earring which fell on the ground in Varanasi. Afraid that this burning rage would destroy the city, the mother Ganges covered up the earring in a small pond which is now called the Manikarnika kund. The final legend is that Vishnu created the kund for Shiv Parvati to bathe in. Parvati hid Shiva's diamond earring in the water so that he would stay around to look for it because she didn't want him to leave.
3) Another story says that Sati Ma's eye fell here, and the nearby Visalakshmi temple is the Shaktipeeth
4) Aghori sadhus who live at the ghat are the monks that practice tantra to fight evil black magic. They rub the cremation ashes on their bodies and eat the remains from the pyre to keep their connection with the spirit world.
Takeaways: whatever the myth one believes, there is a different view of death in this city. It isn't a cause of suffering or mourning. It is an oddly light occasion. If you are one of the ~250 people cremated here everyday, you might be going to the proverbial heaven. And for this reason, the death of a loved one doesn't freak people out. They are celebratory in the burning because they believe that the body is just a temporary cloak for the spirit; It needs to be shed in order to move on and moksha is the ultimate goal of every soul!
Stop 5: Ratneshwar Mahadev/the Leaning temple
This tiny temple at the bottom of the steps has the unique distinction of being one of the most photographed temples despite being submerged under the river for most of the year. Its speciality is that it leans 9 degrees to the back (compared to 4 degrees for the leaning tower of Pisa). During the hot summer months, it's fully above ground. When the river level rises and it goes underwater, the priest dives in to perform the prayers.
The story: As always, there are multiple theories for why it tilts
1) Raja Mansingh built this temple for his mother Ratna Devi 500 years ago as a repayment for performing her maternal duties. It leans because Lord Shiva stomped on the temple when he heard of the ego of the Raja or maybe because the mother cursed the temple - in both cases, they were angry because you cannot repay a mother for all she has done for you
2) Princess Ahilyabai cursed the temple because her maid servant Ratna named it after herself without taking permission from Ahilya
3) (Most plausible) The temple was made on silt with a faulty foundation
Whatever the story, the temple is a sight to behold, makes you wonder if your view is wonky or the structure!