Maṇimēkhalai

Book VI
[The Burning Ground]

The evening passed and the rising moon sent forth its silver beams as if a whole quantity of milk was poured out from a silver jar. The goddess Maṇimēkhalā appeared worshipping the footmarks of ‘the Primeval First One possessed of inexhaustible mercy’.

Seeing the anxious-looking Sutamatī, and her companion, she asked her what it was that troubled them. The former described to her what had taken place just a little before, and gave her to understand the danger in which [125] Maṇimēkhalai was placed at the time.

The Goddess replied that the love of the prince for Maṇimēkhalai would not diminish. He went out of the grove, as he did, out of regard for the fact that the grove was one where dwelt holy ones engaged in their penance. It would be dangerous if Maṇimēkhalai went out of the precincts into the public highways of the town. She therefore advised them to get through the western postern of the garden and spend the night in the Cakravāḷa Kōṭṭam, inhabited chiefly by those devoted to performing penances of various kinds.

The place was referred to by that name only by the goddess and by Mārutavēgan, who brought Sutamatī down to Puhār; but to others in the great city the place was known by the name ‘the temple of the burning-ghat (Śuḍukāṭṭu Kōṭṭam)’.

Sutamatī asked to know the reason why the goddess called the place by that name. The goddess said that the burning ground which came into existence along with the town itself, was next adjoining the grove. It is enclosed in a circuit of walls broken by four gates.

It contained a temple dedicated to Kāli, and monuments of various sizes bearing inscriptions descriptive of those whose dead remains they cover. These inscriptions give the details of the name, caste, mode of life and station in society and the manner of death of those whose monuments they happen to be, each one of them.

There are besides pillars dedicated to the various gods of the burning-ghat to which are made various offerings. There are platforms built of stone, chambers for guards for sheltering themselves from wind and weather. There are besides triumphal arches and shady spaces in various parts.

This place is also divided into sections for various forms of disposal of the dead. A small space is set apart for burning corpses; another where the corpses are simply [126] thrown; a third where the corpses are actually buried in graves dug in the earth; others where corpses are set in small chambers made in the earth, their mouths being closed afterwards; and lastly another part where corpses are left covered over by huge earthern pots.

Up to midnight people keep coming and going constantly engaged in one or other of these various ways of disposing of the dead, and there is unceasing noise in the locality created by the crowd of visitors, the tom-tom beaten for the dead, the sounds of those that recite the merits of recluses that died, the cries of those that weep for the dead, the howling of the jackals and the hooting of the owls.

Different kinds of trees also are found grown close to each other. There are places with standing Vāhai trees, the favourite haunt of evil spirits; with the tree Viḷā, the resort of birds eating fat and flesh of the dead; the shade of Vanni, the resort of the Kāpālikas; places of Ilandai to which resort mendicant ascetics making garlands of broken skulls. There are other unshaded, unwooded places, the resort of people who live by eating the flesh of corpses.

The whole place is otherwise strewn with pots in which fire had been carried; pots of another shape in which articles for other funeral uses had been carried; torn garlands, broken water pots, fried paddy and other articles of offerings to the dead. While death without regard to age, standing, condition or kind of life, goes about killing in heaps in this fashion, to be disposed of in this field of death as described above, is there anything more foolish that could be imagined than that there should be people who still place faith in wealth and, losing themselves in its enjoyment, live their life without doing good?

Such a fearsome place of death happened to be visited by a Brahman youth in the belief that it was a [127] part of the city. He saw there an evil spirit in ecstatic dance, and taking fright at the apparition, ran to where his mother, Gautamī, was and could hardly tell her that he gave up his life to a spirit of the burning-ghat he had the misfortune to see, when he died. Distracted with grief at the death of their only support, the mother cried out in despair:

Who could it be that took away the life of the youth who was the mainstay of her own self and the aged Brahman, her husband, both of them blind and faint with age and infirmities? Carrying her only son’s corpse, she went to the gate of the burning-ghat, invoked the goddess of the town and demanded of her how she happened to fail in her duty of protection of this youth, when she had made it her business to see that no harm befell anybody in the burning-ghat, places of assembly, the ground round old trees, sequestered temples, and other places occasioning fear in people. She demanded to know if the goddess lost her righteousness, and if so, what exactly it was that she herself can do in regard to the matter.

The goddess appeared in response to this invocation and asked her what it was that made her so sorrow-stricken as to brave the dangers of a midnight visit to the burning-ghat. Learning from her of the death of her son, she told the disconsolate mother that no devil nor evil spirit did take her son’s life; his ignorance and his previous deeds are entirely responsible for his death.

Old Gautamī offered to give up her life if the goddess would restore her son to life, as thus restored he would be a protection to his father. The goddess replied again that when one’s life goes out of the body, it follows the track of its deeds and gets into another birth immediately; there could hardly be any doubt in regard to this.

‘To restore life that is gone is not matter possible of [128] achievement. Therefore give up useless sorrow for the death of your son. If it were otherwise, are there not many who would give life for life for kings of this earth? Do you not see in front of you hundreds of monuments erected to the memory of dead sovereigns. Give up, therefore, talk of cruelty, which would lead you only to the sufferings of hell.’

Gautamī said in reply:

‘I have heard it said, gods can do whatever people pray for, on the authority of the Vēda. If you will not give me the boon that I pray for, I shall this moment destroy my life.’

The goddess in her turn said:

‘If, within the circuit of the Universe, anyone of the innumerable gods can grant you the boon that you ask for, I shall be quite pleased to do so myself. But see now what I can do.’

Having said this, she brought down before Gautamī, the four classes of Arūpa (Formless). Brahmas, sixteen Rūpa (Having form). Brahmas, the two light-emanating bodies, the six classes of gods, innumerable Rākṣasas, the eight kinds of men, several groups of stars, ‘the day asterisms,’ the planets, all of them comprised within the circuit of the Universe and capable of granting boons to those that pray for them.

Bringing all these in the presence of Gautamī the goddess asked these to give the boon of the sorrow-stricken Brahman lady, and explained to them the condition of Gautamī. All of them in one voice gave reply of a tenor similar to that in which she answered the question to Gautamī.

Understanding the truth from this, Gautamī reconciled herself in a way to her sadly bereaved condition, and, disposing of the dead body of her son, returned.

Thereafter to illustrate to the coming generations the extraordinary power of the goddess Champāpati, Maya, the divine architect, constructed this monument with the mountain Mēru in the [129] middle, with the seven mountains all round it, four great islands, two thousand smaller islands, with other places of note, containing the kind of beings said to live in them.

This was done by him as memorial of the visit of the beings of the Universe at command of Champāpati. As this building was in the immediate vicinity of the burning-ghat, it came to be known popularly as the ‘temple of the burning-ghat’.

Maṇimēkhalai who was listening to this colloquy between her friend and the goddess, could only remark:–

‘This indeed is the character of life on this earth’.

After a little while, Sutamatī the companion fell asleep, and the goddess Maṇimēkhalā putting young Maṇimēkhalai to sleep by a charm, carried her through the air thirty yojanas south and leaving her there, went her way.