The loss of forest cover has been blamed on villagers’ need for firewood and fodder. But cremation is also a significant factor, even though some officials and environmentalists understandably shy away from this delicate subject. One important reason for the receding treeline in the hills surrounding Kathmandu Valley is the demand for wood in the burning ghats of Pashupati and Sankhamool.
In Kathmandu, one response has been to build electric crematoria, but sociological and cultural factors make this remedy doubtful, according to some. In the meantime, elsewhere in Nepal and in the Indian hills, voluntary organizations and individuals have figured out ways to save precious firewood by burning more for less. “After all, why should you not try appropriate technology in the burning ghats?” asks a Nepali forester.
In Palampur, Himachal Pradesh, appropriate cremation technology takes the form of two low brick walls three feet apart and six feet long, with vents along the sides. Steel rods at six-inch intervals are placed a foot above the ground between the two walls. A wire mesh is sometimes placed above the rods. The design was perfected by the Indo-German Dhauladhar Project.
During cremation, firewood is placed atop the rods and the body above. Traditional funeral pyres involve piling up firewood on a rock platform, with no space underneath for a draft. The Palampur design, on the other hand, provides for sufficient aeration so that cremation is quicker and more efficient. The new design has passed muster with the people of Palampur, who bring their dead to one of two crematoria there.
According to World Food Programme figures, an average adult body requires 600kg to 650kg of wood for complete cremation. The Palampur- type units use only about 400kg. Convinced of the need to save fuel in fragile ecosystems, the WFP is spending IRs one million in Gujarat to install 250 units. At the same time, a new crematorium has been installed at Una in the Uttar Pradesh Hills by the Energy and Environment Group, a voluntary agency, and the administration has now arranged for twelve more units to cover the entire district.
While the Palampur prototype is not in use in Nepal, the Tamang villagers of Bans Kharka in the north-eastern outskirts of Kathmandu have been using their own method for a number of years. Laxman Dong, the Pradhan Pancha, got the idea from seeing the lamas of the Sermathang Gumba in Helambu using what he calls a Nola crematorium, which is a circular rock and masonry structure with an air shaft underneath.
Acutely aware of the deforestation around his village, particularly on Chihan Danda whose summit was used for cremation by the Tamangs, Dong had nine solos constructed in his village, one for each ward. The woodland’s restoration followed almost immediately after the installation, according to the Pradhan Pancha, whose developrrient philosophy is that “dharrna karma (religion), economic progress and environmental conservation must go hand-in-hand”.
Mohan Krishna Dangol, Assistant Engineer of the Kathmandu Town Panchayat, is a supporter of electric crematoria, which is not surprising because his office is building two in the Valley, with equipment ordered from Bombay. “It is quite feasible and important to establish these crematoria for they will prevent river and air pollution. The social problems are not insurmountable,” Dangol says, adding that firewood can only get more expensive. According to Dangol, an adult body will take 30 to 40 minutes to be consumed by the fire. The cost of cremation? About NRs50.
Krishna Pradhan assisted in the reporting this article.
By Sudhirendar Sharma and Rosha Bajracharya