Harishchandra, the twenty-eighth king in the lineage of the Solar Dynasty, was the King of Ayodhya in Northern India, who was renowned for his generosity, humility, honesty and sense of justice. One day Harishchandra happened to be walking through a lonely forest when he heard the sound of women crying in distress, so he went to investigate. In a clearing he came upon the great sage or Rishi, Vishvamitra, who was in the process of mastering the Vedic Sciences. These 'Sciences' had miraculously appeared as a group of women; and Vishvamitra, through the power of his superior will, was forcing their divine knowledge from them and thus causing their lamentations. Not understanding what was taking place, Harishchandra tried to stop this painful ordeal. But his intervention only caused Vishvamitra's concentration to waver, which resulted in the forms of the female Sciences withering away and dissolving into space.

Vishvamitra was furious at Harishchanda's meddling, and demanded the sacrificial penance that was now due for having impeded his work. Repenting of what he had done, the king offered to give the Rishi whatever he might choose to ask for, to which Vishvamitra replied: "I want everything that is dear to you. Your kingdom, your possessions, wife, son, good fortune, and then an additional gift of gold after all of these things have been taken away from you."

Thus it came to pass that in one instant Harishchandra lost all that was precious to him and was reduced to the state of a pauper. Vishvamitra stripped him of all the objects that he possessed: and clad only in garments of tree bark the king, along with his wife and son, were led to the city of Benaras, where Vishvamitra then demanded the auxiliary payment of gold from him. Having no money Harishchandra was forced to sell his wife, Queen Shaivya, and his son, Rohitashva, to a cruel Brahmin. In terrible grief at their tragic separation Harishchandra then realised that he still didn't have enough gold to pay the Rishi the additional fee that was due to him.

Vishvamitra then insisted that the king should sell himself into the service of an outcaste chandala - a disposer of corpses in the cremation grounds. And after binding the king and beating him senseless the Rishi delivered the king into the hands of this chandala. This man was extremely ruthless and offensive, with a hideous appearance and uncouth manners. Under this tyrant of a master Harishchandra was ordered to steal the clothes from unattended corpses, and to dispose of the bodies of the poor by the most economical and gruesome of methods.

After twelve months of this repugnant work the king's spirit had sunk to its lowest level, when a further affliction of fate was cast upon him. This occurred when his wife appeared at the cremation ground one stormy night carrying the body of their son, Prince Rohitashva. Harishchandra's wife and son had suffered greatly at the hands of the cruel Brahmin since they had been separated. Then one afternoon his son was bitten by a poisonous snake while picking flowers for the altar of his Brahmin master. The child died that same night during a thunderstorm, and the Brahmin was too mean and uncaring to help in any way. He wouldn't even leave the comfort of his bed or offer the slightest of condolences. In great misery his mother carried the body of Rohitashva to the cremation ground in her arms, whilst great bolts of thunder ripped open the skies, and bright shafts of lightning illuminated the downpour.

Arriving wet, exhausted and with bitter tears at the cremation ground Queen Shaivya was confronted by her husband. But they no longer recognised each other because of the storm's darkness and the afflictions that time had so cruelly worn on both of their faces. Then when her husband demanded payment for their son's cremation fees she felt all hope die within her. In great distress she tore at her wet hair and sari, crying out: "Harishchandra, what has become of you? Where are you? Help me, O Lord, help me."

When the king heard her pronounce his name he recognised that this woman was his wife and that the dead child in her arms was their son. In mutual grief they clasped each other across their son's body, cleaving to the pain that tore through both of their hearts. Yet even in this moment of terrible despair Harishchandra did not feel any regret for the vow that he had made to the Rishi, nor did he feel any hostility towards him.

However, his wife had come to the end of her tether. Her body, heart and soul could no longer withstand the torment that the last twelve months had inflicted upon her. And now with the finding of her husband again, the realisation of his suffering, and the death of their son, how could she go on living? How could she return from here to the coldness and slavery of her cruel Brahmin master, who at this very moment lay sleeping in his bed? She believed that their only course of action was for them to first light their son's funeral pyre and then to throw themselves into its flames.

But Harishchandra declared that he could not do this, as he was still in debt of a small amount of gold owing from his pledge to Vishvamitra. He told his wife that she could throw herself into their son's pyre, but he would have to remain in the service of the vile chandala until his debt was paid off. Only then could he join his wife and son in the ultimate oblivion of death. Yet there was still the small fee that Harishchandra had to collect from his wife as the payment for cremating their son, and since neither of them possessed any money his wife would have to give half of her sari as payment. In the face of his son's death and his wife's impending suicide, Harishchandra surrendered himself to the mercy of the gods.

It was only when his wife began to remove her sari that the mercy of the gods began to reveal itself. The first to appear was Yama Dharmaraja, the lord of the dead and the god of justice, who was accompanied by the Rishi Vishvamitra. For the past year Yama had assumed the form of the evil chandala, who had severely tested the king as his ruthless taskmaster. Vishvamitra then restored his son Rohitashwa to life through the touch of his hand, and suddenly the prolonged ordeal of the king, his wife and son appeared like a collective dream - a play of illusion or maya. The great god Indra then appeared to inform the king that he, along with his wife and son, had all earned a place in his heaven, but Harishchandra refused to go to heaven without his faithful subjects. Indra then granted this wish and in an instant Harishchandra's whole kingdom was transported to Indra's heavenly realm.

And here they remained for an aeon of blissful harmony, until Harishchandra was later induced by the Rishi Narada to talk about his own perseverance, humility and generosity. The disclosure of his own spiritual qualities caused his entire kingdom to be cast down from Indra's heaven. Yet even as it fell Harishchandra repented of his somewhat boastful words and the fall of his kingdom was arrested in mid-air. It is believed that this celestial kingdom, which exists between earth and heaven, may still be glimpsed upon a clear day.

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If one takes a riverboat from Asi Ghat in the south of Benaras and travels upstream to the main pilgrimage Ghat of Dasasvamedh, one passes Harishchandra Ghat along the way. Sandwiched between Kedar Ghat and Hanuman Ghat, Harishchandra Ghat opens out into a broad flagstone pavement with wide steps that descend into the Ganges. Upon this pavement outcaste chandalas are still employed in the burning of corpses, and after Manikarnika Ghat - the city's main burning ghat - Harishchandra is the only other main cremation site along the river-frontage of Benaras. Nowadays it even has an electric crematorium, but an air of silence and timelessness still seems to hover over this often-deserted place. Some friends used to live in an apartment that overlooked this open-air crematorium and would report how occasionally they would observe a small sphere of fiery light ascend from a funeral pyre and then drift gracefully above the River Ganges towards Calcutta.