"Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi’s pre-eminent cremation ground lies in North of Lalita Ghat."
Such grounds are usually held to be inauspicious, and located on the fringes of cities, but the entire city of Shiva is regarded as Mahashmashana, the Great Cremation Ground for the corpse of the entire universe. The ghat is perpetually crowded with funeral groups, as well as the attendants who conduct it known as Dom. It is awe-inspiring for visitors to see the hectic activity for the preparation of funerals so publicly, but photography is strictly taboo.
Lying at the centre of the five tirthas, Manikarnika Ghat symbolizes both creation and destruction, epitomized by the juxtaposition of the sacred well of Manikarnika Kund, said to have been dug by Vishnu at the time of creation, and the hot, sandy ash-infused soil of cremation grounds where time comes to an end. In Hindu mythology, Manikarnika Kund predates the arrival of the Ganga and has its source deep in the Himalayas. Every year, after the floodwaters of the river have receded to leave the pool caked in alluvial deposits, the kund is re-dug. Its surroundings are cleaned and painted with brightly coloured folk art, which depicts the presiding goddess, Manikarnika Devi, inviting pilgrims to bathe and worship at its small Vishnu shrine, and at the paduka (footprint) of Vishnu set in marble on the embankment of the ghat. The most important of the lingams is the remains of Tarakeshvara, Shiva as Lord of Taraka mantra, a "prayer of the crossing" recited at death.
Strictly speaking, Manikarnika is the name given to the kund and to the ghat, while the constantly busy cremation ground is Jalasi Ghat, dominated by a dark smoke-stained temple built by Queen Ahalya Bai Holkar of Indore in the eighteenth century.