Day that shook Nepal gets a new symbol, an electric crematorium

After years of opposition, earthquake fallout led to first facility in country

Written by Hamza Khan | Kathmandu | Updated: April 25, 2016 3:20:33 am
The first electric crematorium in Nepal at pashupatinath Kathmandu. Express photo by Tashi Tobgyal The first electric crematorium in Nepal at pashupatinath Kathmandu. Express photo by Tashi Tobgyal

THE FAMILY has gathered outside the small building, tears streaming down their faces, while a handful of relatives complete the formalities at the reception. The body of cancer-victim Dinesh Rama, enveloped in white cloth, is on the floor.

A few minutes later, it is shifted to an enclosure encased in metal, separated from the rest of the hall by a glass wall. The last rituals begin, and soon the 28-year-old’s body is cremated.

On Monday, as Nepal marks a year since that first devastating earthquake, its first ever electric crematorium, which came up three months ago, has emerged as a grim symbol of the tragedy.

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First planned about 33 years ago, then stalled by protests over religious beliefs, it was the earthquake that finally led to its construction in Kathmandu, next to the 5th century Pashupatinath temple. “It was considered blasphemy to consign a person to fire in a metal box. But our former prime minister Kirti Nidhi Bista visited various European countries to see similar facilities there and wanted to replicate that back home,” said Dr Govind Tandon, member-secretary of Pashupatinath Area Development Trust (PADT).

And although his term lasted only from 1977-79, Bista continued to push for an electric crematorium, seeking opinion from scholars and religious leaders, and getting in touch with those running such facilities in India.

“The Kathmandu Metropolitan Office started a ‘semi-furnace’ in 1987. But it was not aesthetic. Two days later, there were protests and it was shut down,” said Tandon.

“This time, we went ahead with it after consultations. A company from Kolkata, Indomen Engineering Service, was given the job and we had it constructed for Nepali rupees 2 crore. The earthquake advanced its opening,” he said.

Last year, following the first earthquake, over 1,200 bodies were burnt in just three days on the ghats along Bagmati river near the Pashupati temple, with pyres lit even on silt mounds in the middle.

Bidur Poudel, Vice Chancellor of Nepal Sanskrit University, who advised PADT during the construction of this crematorium, says it adheres to religious beliefs. “We constituted a large committee of scholars, religious experts and pandits and took everyone onboard.
Religion and science shouldn’t go in separate directions. We have to adapt our rituals and customs to progress in technology,” said Poudel.

However, Dr Madhav Bhattarai, a former guru to the king, says some rituals are being missed out in the new facility, which opened on January 24. “It has our support, but not fully. There are some rituals that you can’t undertake in an electric crematorium. This might be the need of the day but it will certainly hurt our culture,” said Dr Bhattarai.

Crematorium in-charge Dhruv Tara says more people are opting for this facility, which averages at least 15 cremations these days. So far, about 1,100 bodies have been cremated here, he adds.

Meanwhile, Rama’s uncle Vijay Ram Magar says this was the first electric cremation in the family. “Earlier, the fire would go on for four-five hours and it would be a long emotional trauma. Relatives would have to come back the next day for the ashes. But here, the entire process got over within 45 minutes,” says Lila Nirula, a neighbour.

Tandon says the new facility costs only one-fourth of what it would for a traditional cremation. “Using the electric crematorium costs only Nepali rupees 3,200 while a traditional cremation requires Nepali rupees 12,000. It also saves wood, and there is considerably less pollution,” he said.

“You have to keep evolving, there shouldn’t be rigidity. Otherwise, time will overthrow your culture,” said Tandon.

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