Crowds lined one of Pashupati’s bridges over the Bagmati River and opposing viewing gallery, pressing for a view onto the spectacle of an influential man’s last rites and cremation. For death here, and its aftermath, are public affairs. Mourning and grief and shock are communal, while the remains of the dead go up in smoke for all to experience (‘for all to see’ would be a misnomer, for it is a sensory experience: sight, sound, smell, taste, and thankfully little touch).
Pashupati is the famed and historic Hindu temple of Lord Shiva that lines the Bagmati, and is the preferred and busiest cremation site in Nepal. At its northern edge, ghats jut out from the southern landscaped concrete bank like miniature helipads neighbouring steep descending steps into the calm water. The river is the centerpiece of this open-ended stadium of ancient rock and worship. Ghat attendants dressed in white stoke the fires of the departed with long bamboo poles, working in pairs and guiding the family through the Hindu ritual, while all else sit back and watch.
Suvash Darnal, the 31-year old Dalit leader and founder of my affiliated organization (Jagaran Media Center), died in a tragic car accident in Washington four weeks ago. His transfer to Nepal was delayed overseas in bureaucratic entanglements and Hurricane Irene, only touching down in his home country two weeks later, after the fact. There was an initial public viewing in an open casket hours after his arrival, followed by a procession through Kathmandu’s streets to his last destination.
The cremation itself, and the process leading up to it, is more graphic and moving than I had expected. The body is first publicly stripped of its clothes and carefully shrouded in cloth, and then placed on a waiting wood pyre. And this being a procession of a famed resident, it was held in a VIP section with an accompanying viewing area, with a bright orange cloth awning over the ghat. Close family and friends paid their last respects with flowers, while the immediate heirs conducted the last rites – the senior male of the bunch lighting the pyre.
As the flames build and consume the mass of wood and straw and body, being in attendance is no longer a passive experience. The smoke and smell of the burning body wafts over the crowd, while crackles and pops boom from exploding pressure pockets and collapsing supporting wood beams of the pyre, followed by shrieks from family and friends. The ghat attendants continually stoke and monitor the flames, adding kindling and straw ever so often to ensure a strong burn. At times, it all appears to be only a burning mass, while at others, open pockets reveal glimpses into the process at hand, as the harsh reality of what’s being done in front of you becomes undeniable.
It is strange to comment on these affairs, as it was a mentor and friend’s funeral that I am writing on, and I do not have an impartial perspective. Experiencing a friend’s being go up in smoke while his charred remains turn to ash before your eyes was something else, but I am in a sense thankful.
The life he lived is over. The public cremation verifies this, and there is no possibility for delusion and denial that his end was but a bad dream. You reflect on the individual and their life as the slow process goes on. Over three hours as the body and pyre burn, your thoughts on the person’s life evolve with the cremation. At first, they are strong and vivid as it starts with the first crackles and puffs of smoke, but over time, finality and contentment take hold.
There is a common saying on death and the cycle of life in most religions, that we’re born into this world naked of the womb, and depart it equally naked and bare. In much of the West, our lives and that of the community are more private than they are here. In these shadows of the Himalayas, time passes in the community as part of a larger social family, or at least in more plain view. As part of this cycle, death and bereavement are no exception. Back home, it takes place within walled confines with a guest list, while here, there is no such barrier. A life is public, and ends in public, naked in a shroud on the shores of the Bagmati, all watching the fire.
Posted By Corey Black
Posted Sep 14th, 2011