“SHE was playing in the house when it collapsed,” says Kharka Bahadur, sitting next to the body of his three-year-old daughter, Santoshi, waiting to carry out her last rites. Nearby, four other bodies lie wrapped in white sheets, but they are quickly moved away to make way for more.
At Kathmandu’s 5th century Pashupatinath Temple, the bodies have been arriving for cremation since Saturday, when the first earthquake struck.
On the left of the main entrance, a huge crowd mourns the deaths of their loved ones. Further ahead, as the steps lead to the Bagmati River, the air is thick with smoke and ash from the 15-odd funeral pyres. On the right, there are about a dozen concrete blocks, where the bodies are being cremated. Some bodies are surrounded by relatives, others remain unidentified, cremated without a name.
“Since Saturday, 1,200 bodies from Kathmandu and nearby districts have been cremated at these ghats,” says Swami Gokulanand, mahant of the temple. “There have been 300 unclaimed bodies so far… There are 400 priests registered under the Culture Ministry’s Pashupatinath Development Authority and they — at least those who are alive — have been working overtime,” he says.
About 15 people have gathered around the pyres of Kalpana, 33, and her daughter Jiani, 8. There is an unattended pyre nearby — it appears to be that of a child. As people pass by, some carrying logs on their shoulders for the pyres of their relatives, nobody spares a glance. Jagatguru, a priest, says foreign NGOs are funding the cremation of the unclaimed bodies.
There isn’t enough space, so some bodies are also being cremated on an “island” of silt that has accumulated in the middle of the river. As more bodies arrive, pyres are lit on the steps leading to the river as well.
Facing space and time constraints, Vishnu Prasad, 51, uses a log to push a burning pyre into the river. “My job is to cremate the dead,” he says. “This funeral pyre could have kept burning for hours, but there is no space… And this is an unclaimed body,” he says.
“I have cremated 15 bodies in the last three days,” adds his friend and co-worker Punya Prasad, 35. He is attending to the funeral of Deepak, whose brother, Kumar Kafle, says he was with the Nepal Army and was posted at the Durbar Square when the quake struck. “We were very close. I had told him to join the Army as I couldn’t get a good job,” says Kumar.
A little distance away, Shivdas, 60, has just cremated his wife. “I haven’t heard from my children in the village. Our home here has been completely destroyed. What will I go back to,” he says.