15/05/2015 3:33 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

More Deaths Than The Ghats Could Bear: These Men Cremated Nepal's Dead

Betwa Sharma

KATHMANDU, Nepal -- Laxman Keshi remembers spirals of smoke rising, and then weaving into a dense cloud, as hundreds of bodies were cremated on the banks of the Bagmati River in the week after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal on April 25.

“It felt like one sun was in the sky and the other was burning near me,” said Keshi, who stoked the fires of the funeral pyres. “In the night, the flames looked like an orange snake that slithered on and on."

For the past 25 years, Keshi, 40, has stoked the fires of a thousand funeral pyres for Hindus, which are always burning on fourteen cremation platforms near the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu. But he had never seen bodies arrive in droves or heard so many families wailing together.

“The bodies started coming around five in the evening. The crying went on for so long that it got stuck in my head. I can still hear it if I block out all the other sounds for a few minutes,” he said.

The Pashupatinath Temple employs around 14 men called "Shavdah Karne Brahmin,” who keep the funeral pyres burning until bodies turns to ash.

While some of them rushed back to their native villages after the earthquake, those who remained were overwhelmed, especially on April 26, when 154 bodies were brought for cremation. It takes three to four hours for a body to burn fully.

More than 8,000 people were killed in the earthquake on April 25 in Nepal. Since then, aftershocks of varying intensity have kept the Himalayan nation of 26 million on the edge. And just when its inhabitants were mustering the courage to return home, Nepal was hit by a 7.3-magnitude earthquake on Tuesday, which killed more than 100 people.

Last week, Dashrat Thapar, 32, came to the Pashupatinath Temple with only one prayer. "I begged God to forgive us if we had done anything wrong and never send such a tragedy to Nepal again," he said. After praying, he joined a group of devotees who were leaning over a wall of the temple to see the cremations.

Funerals pyres burning along the Bagmati River in Kathmandu.

Keshi, who handles two bodies in his daily routine, cremated around 15 earthquake victims every day after the earthquake. The fire-stoker said that he had no time think about the tragedy unfolding around him, but he cried when 11 members of one family, including a four-month-old baby, were brought for cremation. "That day I sobbed. We burned the husband and wife together because we had to save time and space."

“That day I sobbed. We burned the husband and wife together because we had to save time and space,” he said. “There are no words to describe the sadness of those dark days. We were also scared because the ground was still moving. But it was not a time to run away."

Laxman Keshi heaps hay on a funeral pyre near the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu .

Shavdah Karne Brahmins

The burning out of the cremation fires near the Pashupatinath Temple are regarded as deeply inauspicious. Till around 20-25 years ago, the temple authorities would burn effigies stuffed with kusa grass if no one had to cremated. But that practice ended as the population of Kathmandu increased.

Over the weekend, Keshi poured ghee, heaped hay and stoked the funeral pyres with a long wooden pole. He also wiped the sweat from his forehead, puffed hard at his cigarettes while speaking on his cellphone, and talked to the family members of the deceased.

Even though he pondered over the question for several minutes, Keshi could not recall how he ended up stoking funeral pyres to earn a livelihood. “I can't remember exactly. It is not something you plan to be like a doctor or an engineer, but it is a mystery where life takes you,” he said. “The most I can tell you is that I grew up under the shelter of the temple. I left school after class 8, started working here, and never left. The work is gruelling but the pay is good.”

After two decades, Keshi still dreads handling bodies infected with worms and bellies bloated with saline water given in hospitals. “It is horrible because the bellies explode in the heat and sometimes the stuff sprays on to us," he said. "It is horrible because the bellies suddenly explode in the heat and sometimes it sprays on to us."

Once the fire of the funeral pyre burns out, the fire-stokers push the simmering logs into the river. Many families ask them to collect some ash and any remains of the body, which they scoop out with thin sticks of wood. Then, they wash the platform to have it ready for the next body.

The final step is burning a sheaf of hay, which symbolises releasing the spirit of the deceased into the cosmos.

The fire-stokers of Kathmandu earn around 1,200 Nepali rupees (750 Indian rupees) for handling one body, which works out to 25,000 to 60,000 Nepali rupees, every month, depending on how many cremations are done at the temple.

Keshi needs the money to support his four daughters, who live in Bhaktapur district with their mother. While he studied till the eighth grade, Keshi’s eldest is studying business management in college and his youngest is a nine-months-old baby.

“I'll tell you frankly. We have four girls because we were trying for a boy. My wife and mother wanted to get rid of the fourth one when we found out that it was a girl again. Even the doctor said to drop it since we have three girls. But that would have been a sin in Hindu religion,” he said. “I must earn to build a future for them. My eldest wants to get a job in Dubai so I will have to send her.”

As Keshi cleaned out the cremation platform, male relatives got their heads shaved on the steps leading down to the river, where monkeys nibbled at discarded bottles of water and juice, and dogs snoozed peacefully in the afternoon sun. Within a few minutes, another body covered in a yellow cloth, sprinkled with red kumkuma powder and orange flowers, arrived for cremation. "They say that if you burn 108 bodies, you will go to heaven. Well, I've cremated over 10,000, so I'm going to a good place for sure."

"They say that if you burn 108 bodies, you will go to heaven. Well, I've cremated over 10,000, so I'm going to a good place for sure," he said.

Bikram Upreti handles the cremation of Neema Ghimire Lama who died in the earthquake.

In another corner of the ghat, 22-year-old Bikram Upreti was handling the cremation of Neema Ghimire Lama, a woman, who died in the earthquake when a building collapsed on her teashop. A mask covered his mouth but his grey eyes glazed over from the smoke as he stoked the fire.

Upreti requested an image with his face showing not be published because his parents, who live in a village of Sindhupalchowk district, don’t know what he does in Kathmandu.

Two years ago, Upreti ran away from his village because he didn't want to farm, graze cattle, run his father’s kirana store, or go to school which he left after class nine.

"My parents are very respected in the village. It would shame them if they get to hear what I do. But there is nothing else I can find,” he said. "One needs to have at least finished school to find any government job. I put an axe on my foot."

Upreti got this job because of his cousin, who had worked at the cremation ghats for over a decade. “I used to watch him burn bodies when I was a kid. I would get nightmares that their ghosts are coming after me,” he said. "But such is fate that I'm doing the same thing that terrified me."

When the earthquake hit Nepal on April 25, Upreti thought he was being punished for playing cards with his friends near the temple."I thought the river was rising towards the sky. The poles were shaking so hard that I got dizzy. I promised God that I would never play cards if it would just stop," he said. "I thought the river was rising towards the sky. The poles were shaking so hard that I got dizzy. I promised God that I would never play cards if it would just stop."

Upreti, who left for his native village on the same day, wasn't there when the bodies of the earthquake victims were brought in for cremation. "I was very relieved to have missed all that. But the first person I cremated on coming back was an earthquake victim," he said.

A sheaf of hay is burned after Neema Ghimire Lama is cremated.

Neema Ghimire Lama

Lama had been dead for almost two weeks before a social worker could locate her husband's family. They had not kept in touch since her husband died, 13 years ago.

Rajendra Kumar Ghimire, a relative, who was attending the funeral, said that relations had always been strained because her husband's family, who are Brahmins, were against him marrying into the Buddhist Tamang community of Nepal. The young couple got married after running away, and they had a son, but then Lama's husband died after drowning in a well.

“We knew they had a son but there was a never a reconciliation. So many years flew by without speaking," said Ghimire. “Caste and religion doesn't matter now. They are both dead.” "It is sad that only a tragedy could bring him back into our lives."

Ghimire said that their family wanted to have closer relations with Lama's son now that he was orphaned. "The boy is still in the hospital. It is sad that only a tragedy could bring him back into our lives,” he said.

Bubbles spouted on the surface of the Bhagmati River as Upreti pushed sizzling logs from the funeral pyre into the water. Since Lama wasn't a Brahmin, her husband's family did not take ask him to collect her remains to be submerged in the holy water.

As they were leaving, the fire-stoker burned a sheaf of hay to release her soul.

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