I recently received a request from a student of architecture in India for some photographs I had taken of Nimtala Cremation Ghat, Kolkata. He had seen them on my website and wanted them to support his University thesis on devising plans for a new cremation complex, reflecting both the ‘socio-cultural inclusiveness of cremation activity’ and his wish to ‘present death as a reality and a symbol of reverence in Indian context’. He also asked for my views regarding Nimtala cremation complex as a ‘sacred space’.
My last visits were in January 2015, when I visited twice. The complex is only a little way upstream from the buzzing flower market at Howrah Bridge and is reached before coming to the potters village of Kurmatuli, both favourite places of mine in Kolkata. Rather than catch public transport I often walked along the Hooghly river enjoying the activity along the ghats, stopping and having a chai occasionally as well as enjoying the cool breezes which swept off the river. One of the stops I would make for chai was at the cremation complex.
Nimtala cremation site is a utilitarian affair, divided into 2 sections, one for traditional cremation where 4 outside pyres exist and the second indoor facility for electric crematoria which provide a culturally more modern and efficient solution. It is estimated that 40-50 million trees are harvested annually to meet the demand for traditional wood pyre cremation which then releases 7.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The cost of wood is also so high that unburnt or half-burnt bodies are routinely deposited in rivers across India. On this basis alone the argument for electric furnaces is overwhelming, but what of tradition?
On my first visit, in 2013, no improvement work had been undertaken but when I returned in 2015 the complex had been partially renovated. More electric ovens had been installed and two of the 4 traditional pyres had chimneys built over them, where smoke was sucked up with a great rumbling sound and comprehensively filtered before being emitted into the Kolkata sky. In these new pyres the body and wood were contained in a sturdy metal brazier which maintained the fire directly under the gaping mouth of the chimney. What was evident was that attempts had been made to make the whole place more welcoming; a memorial garden with a bust of a national cultural icon who had been cremated there had been built on the site of some very old pyres and other decorative efforts had been made. This seeking to make improvements for both ecological and aesthetic reasons is in direct contrast to my experience at Varanasi, where the burning fires of Manikarnika and Harishchandra continue unabated with traditional wooden pyres which seemed designed to serve and placate Shiva rather than accept a need for modernisation and a contribution to more ecologically balanced practices. In fact an anthropologist I met in Varanasi suggested that the electric crematoria at Harishchandra ghat was regularly sabotaged in order to continue with wood burning pyres which in turn deliberately preserved the profits for the wood suppliers.
Despite the changes at Nimtala it was still a place of grim business, with up to 80 cremations a day occurring in winter and less in the summer, and a regular procession of people making their way down to the Hooghly/Ganga with urns filled with ashes. Outside a row of little stalls faced the complex offering for sale flowers and other memorabilia as well as drinks, samosas and biscuits. A steady procession of silver funeral cars brought bodies over the circular railway line to this spot throughout the day and night.
I found difficulty answering his question as to whether I found Nimtala sacred. The term ‘sacred’ conjures up all manner of deeply embedded ideas and thoughts, most of which are value judgements based upon culture, education, faith and life experiences. I had many conflicting emotions about the whole experience of outdoor cremations and pyres beside a river considered to be a living goddess and these conflicts were not about the rituals themselves but concerned the often unsanitary conditions in which they occurred. I quickly realised that 5 months away from India had re-aligned me to a western ideology and sensitivity and I was struggling to find ‘sacredness’ in the experiences I had witnessed close hand both at Nimtala and the cremation site at Manikarnika, Varanasi just by memory. Recollections of dogs, cows, goats and other animals wandering amongst the bodies waiting for cremation, drunk men shouting and jumping up and down without restraint and being threatened with violence at Manikarnika ghats if I didn’t pay baksheesh to take photographs assumed prominence above more positive recollections of the undoubted spiritual importance of the occasion. What is sacred in these appalling experiences at a supposed sacred site?
Struggling to reconcile my own views I agreed he could use some of my images for his thesis. The gulf between our worlds never seemed greater to me.
He had provided some very interesting supporting papers concerning architectural considerations regarding planning crematoria. One of the papers had the title ‘Grief and Healing in Architecture’ and consisted of a very detailed set of conceptual premises which informed planning decisions in the USA. Its introductory Abstract suggested ‘Death is a universal phenomenon. It’s existence is one of the defining characteristics of what it means to live, yet dialogue on the matter is often avoided……I seek to also examine the implications of cremation and its built form on the idea of the sacred and the phenomenal. Such a program provides a unique opportunity for architecture to console the bereaved’.
The author went on to discuss the poverty of architectural design within American cremation sites and made frequent reference to the idea of ‘the sacred in architecture’ as a requisite to reflect and assist the sacred nature of the process of facilitating life into death and in then helping the bereaved relatives attending to begin their own healing processes. He feels that many American crematoria are ‘utilitarian’ in design and do not assist with these important processes. The article is here and is an interesting read and includes many expressions such as ‘remembering the dead is not a passive moment but a potent experience of the sacred’.
Using the values that architecture and civic planning might require in creating a ‘sacred’ space for cremation ( including the beneficial effect on the bereaved ) as suggested within this document my eventual reply did not seem to me to be a charitable response. The question that kept entering my head was where to look for evidence of the ‘sacred’ in either Kolkata or Varanasi using my western understanding of the term.
The actual cremation process in the Hindu faith has very definite religious structure and ritual known as Antyesti. This is based on a premise that that the microcosm of all living beings is a reflection of a macrocosm of the universe. The soul, which is both the ‘essence’ and immortal, is released during the Antyesti rituals from the body which is merely considered a vehicle to contain a soul for a duration of earth time. The body returns to its origins of the 5 elements of air, water, fire, earth and space.
The traditional practices for cremation include the following :
• A dead adult Hindu is mourned with a cremation, while a dead child is typically buried.
• The last rites are usually completed within a day of death.
• His or her body is washed, wrapped in white cloth if the dead is a man or a widow (red if her husband is still alive), the two toes tied together with a string, a tilak (red mark) placed on the forehead.
• The dead adult’s body is carried to the cremation ground near a river or water, by family and friends, and placed on a pyre with feet facing south.
• The eldest son, or a male mourner, or a priest – called the lead cremator, lead mourner or Karta– then bathes himself before leading the cremation ceremonial function.
• He circumambulates the dry wood pyre with the body, says a eulogy or recites a hymn in some cases, places sesame seed or rice in the dead person’s mouth, sprinkles the body and the pyre with ghee (clarified butter), then draws three lines signifying Yama (deity of the dead), Kala (time, deity of cremation) and the dead.
• The pyre is then set ablaze, while the mourner’s mourn.
• Once the pyre is well-ignited the lead cremator ( called Karta ) and the closest relatives may circumambulate the burning pyre one or more times.
• The concluding action by the lead cremator, during the ritual, typically includes kapala kriya, or the ritual of piercing the well-incinerated skull with a stave (bamboo fire poker) to make a hole or break it, so as to release the spirit.
• All those who attend the cremation, and are exposed to the dead body or cremation smoke take a shower, as soon as possible after the cremation, as the cremation ritual is considered in Hinduism as hygienically unclean and polluting.
• The cold collected ash from the cremation is later consecrated to the nearest river or sea.
• In some regions, the male relatives of the deceased shave their head and invite all friends and relatives, on the tenth or twelfth day, to eat a simple meal together in remembrance of the deceased.
• This day, in some communities, also marks a day when the poor and needy are offered food in memory of the dead.
The cremation ground itself is called Shmashana (in Sanskrit), and traditionally it is located near a river, if not on the river bank itself. Those who can afford it may go to special sacred places like Varanasi, Haridwar, Allahabad and other auspicious sites on the occasion of Ashokastami and Rameswaram to complete this rite of immersion of ashes into water.
Traditionally, cremation rites are undertaken by Doms, who were considered to be of the lowest caste in the now illegal caste system. This was a system which required Hindu people to remain within their own social class throughout their lifetime, and their caste was considered a direct reflection of their spiritual development and state of karma. Indian society favoured higher caste citizens because it was believed people from this caste had a more developed sensibility. People worked, maintained friendships and married within their caste groups.
Doms were considered ‘untouchables’ and were once regarded as people who routinely broke the law under Raj rule in India. Traditionally they constituted cremation workers, rope weavers, basket makers and street musicians.
At Nimtala the Doms undertake the last rites together with the chief mourner; it is a relationship which transcends all social barriers. Although respected for their occupation it is said that the caste system, although now illegal, still continues throughout most of India. The men, and younger male relatives as can be seen in one of the photographs, whose work and socially-attributed role it is to assist souls on their forward journeys, and have to do so in working conditions which would be considered entirely unacceptable in a western society, still face extreme prejudice in their every day lives. To touch a dead body, or to be surrounded by the smoke from a burning pyre, is considered extremely unclean and mitigates against forming enduring social contacts outside of a person’s own circle of friends. Perhaps worse still, inhaling smoke on a daily basis is estimated to reduce life expectancy to 30 or 40 years only.
A very good and enlightening article from the Asia Times written by Bryan Pearson regarding the considerable social and health difficulties facing dom Santosh Kumar Mallick, a worker at Nimtala Ghat, and his family at Nimtala’s municipal home for doms is here.
The images included here are from the selection I agreed the architectural student could use for his thesis.