September 10, 2012
KATHMANDU, NEPAL – From across the holy Bagmati River, tourists with cameras zoom in to capture pictures of the burning corpses.
Smoke from the burning pyres fills the air surrounding Pashupati Aryaghat, the world’s most famous Hindu crematorium just outside the Pashupati Temple, a world heritage site in Kathmandu.
As tourists snap photos from across the river (the temple is open to Hindus only) locals rush past to avoid the smell of burning bodies. Family members of the deceased stand close by, weeping in melodic unison. But Krishna Bahadur Magar, 44, is not watching the Hindu ritual like a tourist or mourning like a family member. He is at work.
Magar sweats as he flips the corpse over to make sure it is burning efficiently. He glances up to see a new funeral procession approaching. The new dead body is covered in yellow cloth and sprinkled with flowers and bright orange vermillion powder.
The site of the new body makes him smile. “It seems like I can make good money today,” he says. “I feel dejected when I don’t see a single dead body.”
For the relatives of the deceased, it is a day of mourning. But for Magar, dead bodies are his only source of income. “We have to sleep with empty stomachs if dead bodies are not brought into the [crematorium],” says Magar, who has a wife and four children to feed.
As the priests of the Pashupati Temple ring the bell and blow the conch, the funeral processions slowly follow the path to the river to pay their last tributes to the dead by offering holy river water, flowers, and incense. Magar’s colleagues hurry to bring new firewood to build 3 new pyres. “Three more dead bodies have arrived. That means we will be busy throughout the day today,” he says.
Six hours later, Magar sits down to take a rest. He lights a cigarette as he flips the remains of his third and final corpse of the day. He calls to another attendant and asks him to add vegetable oil to the burning pyre to make the flames more intense. Magar’s face is a deep shade of red and he is still perspiring. “It’s been more than six hours since I am standing near the fire,” he says as drops of sweat roll down his sooty vest.
When Magar was just six years old he moved to Kathmandu from a western district with hopes of a better future. He says he never imagined this would be his profession. He took a small job bringing wood to the crematorium as a boy. Slowly, he learned the holy ritual and the business of burning bodies. “At first I got frightened when I saw the dead bodies. But later I got used to it,” he says.
Magar is one of 27 attendants at the Pashupati Aryaghat who burns bodies and performs last rites for a living. Everyday, they carry firewood, build the pyres, perform Kriya, the Hindu last rite, and light the fires. According to the Ministry of Culture, there are more than 100 people working as cremation attendants throughout the country. Data from the Pashupati Area Development Trust, PADT, the body that manages the Pashupati area, indicates that an average of 30 corpses are brought here for cremation each day.
While Hindu custom dictates that the children of the deceased should perform the last rites, preferably the sons, it has become increasingly common to hire someone for the task. “Many relatives of deceased persons hire other people to perform last rites,” confirms Rebati Raman Adhikari, of PADT. “This trend is increasing because of the population growth and trend of the new generation going abroad and their reluctance of performing last rites.”
Despite the rise in demand for their services, the men who burn bodies for a living earn extremely low wages and are often homeless. Local doctors say they suffer from respiratory problems because of their prolonged exposure to the smoke. While there is a growing push to increase the wages for the cremation attendants, PADT is preparing to install new machines to burn the bodies at the holy site.
For Magar and the other cremation attendants in the capital city, wages are low. All of the 27 attendants here say they live in extreme poverty. Magar earns 765 rupees, less than $10 USD, for burning one body. The average is less than one per day. In the more rural districts, the attendants earn even less.
Nearly 500 miles northwest of Kathmandu, Muktinath Sedhain also eeks out a living by burning Hindu bodies on bank of the Kankai River in the Jhapa district. For the past 15 years, he has burned bodies and performed last rites. But he earns just 250 rupees, less than $3 USD for his work.
“When I don’t receive dead bodies, I go hungry,” he says. “I cannot live without dead bodies around me.”
Sedhain is homeless. He spends his nights in a small plastic hut under a local bridge. Now that it is wintertime, he says he wears seven layers of clothing to keep warm. “The clothes I am wearing were brought to the riverbank by relatives of the deceased people,” he says. He cooks his evening meal with the firewood left over after a day of burning bodies.
While Magar works for PADT, a formal group that appoints staff and provides wages, Sedhain and his four colleagues have no formal organization. They operate alone and collect only what people offer them for their service.
But in the world of Hindu crematoriums this is the busy season, so both men report earning more money these days. “The Nepali months of Mangsir, Poush and Magh (from mid-November to mid-January) are when death cases go up during the winter season. We earn more during this time,” says Magar. “And some people give us tips.”
While PADT officials would not comment about the low wages paid to its workers, PADT treasurer Yuwa Club Mukesh Dangol admits that their wages are meager. “Their living standard is very low and pitiable. They don’t have a roof over their heads and sometimes spend nights with empty stomachs,” he says. “There is nobody to fight for their rights,” says Dangol.
Both Magar and Sedhain say their work, while necessary to society, is a source of much stigma. “Some people humiliate us. They say we are ghosts and despise our profession,” says Magar. “But the reality is they cannot cremate the bodies of their relatives without our help.”
In addition to the social stigma, burning bodies for a living also has substantial health risks. Dr. Tijendra Subba, a physician in Nepal, says people working in the crematoriums suffer from respiratory problems due to prolonged exposure to smoke. In the past week alone, PADT confirms that more than five workers have fallen sick.
“This is because they are exposed to smoke for a long time,” says Subba. But Magar says he has no choice but to endure the smoke. “It’s been years since I am living in this smoke-filled environment,” he says. He often feels nauseous at the end of the day, has a consistent cough and is prone to illness.
The workers at Pashupati recently protested against PADT and demanded medical expenses and other benefits. “Now we deduct 85 rupees from their wages for their future,” says Dangol of the new savings plan that was put into place last month. No stipends for medical expenses have yet been provided.
Residents around the Pashupati area also tend to have respiratory problems and complain about the pollution from the constant fires. Environmental advocates say all of the wood used to build the pyres is fueling deforestation here too. In Pashupati Aryaghat alone, six tons firewood are used daily to burn corpses during the busy season.
In an attempt to curb pollution, PADT confirmed that they are preparing to install two electric cremation machines that will decrease the pollution and deforestation associated with cremation.
“Once these machines are installed it will certainly reduce environmental pollution,” says Regmi of PADT.
But for Magar, the machines mean he will soon be out of a job. “The only skill I have is burning corpses,” Magar says. “How can we survive when our work is replaced by the machines?”
PADT says they do not have a firm plan as to when the machines will be installed. There is likely to be some controversy over mechanizing the holy Hindu ritual.
Magar says if a machine replaces his job, he will miss this place, even though he witnesses grief and mourning every day. “I don’t know how many corpses I’ve burned. All I know is that people [have] shed a lot of tears here,” he says.