Were it not for the partially collapsed building, Arya Ghat, the largest cremation site in Kathmandu, adjacent to the Pashupati would look almost the same as before. Just ten days after the earthquake, tourists are back as are devotees and mourners. Visitors gawk at the temples, believers bow their heads, and sadhus of all hues loiter among the sprinkling of monuments overlooking the Bagmati River. But not all is the same of course. For one, the cremation site has been forced to cremate hundreds of people since the April 25 earthquake, a trend that continues as more and more dead bodies are retrieved from under the rubble and many of those seriously injured succumb to their injuries.
Between 25 April and 5 May, the 25 people employed by the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT), (which manages the cremation ground adjacent to the Pashupati temple), helped cremate over 530 people, most of them from Kathmandu Valley where the death toll has crossed 1680. Many of those cremated are unidentified. Others are brought by family members, but the cremation is a quick affair unlike the usual elaborate rituals. “Grieving families usually accompany the body of their loved ones. But the police also brought in about 20 unidentified bodies some days back. I guess rather than wait for the bodies to rot, they wanted to cremate it,” says Shabho Paudel, an office manager at Arya Ghat. The number of bodies coming in peaked on 26 April when 154 earthquake victims were cremated. On the morning of 4 May only 4 bodies had come in.
In between stoking a funeral pyre with a bamboo shaft, Pushparaj Paudel, puffs away at his cigarette. Paudel, who has been helping with cremation rituals at Pashupati for the last 10 years, says it’s been a long week. When the bodies started to come in on the evening of 25 April, Paudel was at home. When he did report back on duty the next day, he was overwhelmed by the number of bodies that needed to be cremated. “We put them in a line and lit the fire. I had no rest for the next two days and nights as the bodies kept coming in. All day and night our team worked tirelessly; we only drank Frooti. We did the best we could.”
While Hindu cremation rituals are broadly the same, they differ along ethnic and caste lines. Under normal circumstances the cremation at the Arya Ghat caters to community-specific rituals, but the first few days after the earthquake there was no scope of doing this. Paudel says that they even cremated Christians –which he clarifies is not that unusual. For believers, being cremated at Pashupati, a major Shiva Temple on the banks of the holy river Bagmati, eases entry into paradise; this partially explains the rush at this particular cremation site.
For many across Nepal cremating the dead has always been a challenge, but more so after 25 April. A funeral which can consumes up to 250kg of firewood is a luxury where many are still waiting for relief aid. After the earthquake the government also instructed PADT to provide the big logs necessary for the pyre for free; the families still had to purchase the small logs and other necessities. Across the central hills of Nepal, villages are burying their dead in mass graves rather than cremating them.
~Slok Gyawali is an assistant editor at Himal Southasian.
~‘Notes from the field’ is a reporting initiative, where we bring stories of the people and places that have been affected by the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal.
Slok Gyawali is a writer based in Chicago.