I recently experienced the festival of Maghe Sankranti as the only westerner in attendance in a village near Ghorahi, Dang. The last time I was at the festival site was during Tihar in 2012, and things were very quiet in this beautifully wooded area with a man-made lake in the center, where I had previously visited the home of a Sadhu. At that time, I noticed some old boats sitting idle in the lake. I was also shown a small temple with an area that I was told was used for animal sacrifice. I tried to imagine what that was like, but really had little idea.
As we made our way to the festival site for Maghe Sankranti, I noticed the number of other people arriving, the orange and peanut sellers, the variety of balloons and foods, a makeshift movie house, and sugarcanes. It was really a lot of “eye-candy” for someone who loves to take photos.
We made our way to the lake and the sacrifice site and I saw many people paying for a boat ride, while other people were bathing. Behind the temple was the sacrifice site, and I started to see a number of people roasting headless carcasses over open fires and other people cleaning what had been a sheep. Crossing a small bridge, we came to a line of sheep waiting to be sacrificed, being held from both ends over a bloody log. A man brought what looked to be a sword, i.e. a Khukuri, up and then down, and the head went one way with the carcass being thrown another. This happened a number of times in very machine like fashion. In experiencing the quiet of this particular area during Tihar, I had imagined what the “screams” might be like. But watching the actual sacrifice, I heard nothing but the sound of the Khukuri as it went up and came down.
Back in Kathmandu, I thoroughly enjoy making the walk from Thamel to Sanepa Chowk, where I live. But on this particular night around Chikamungal I came upon a group of people watching the start of a funeral procession. I heard and saw a woman crying and walking around a body, although it was difficult to tell, as it was tightly wrapped in a mat with a pitamber (yellow cloth), lying on an arthi.
The procession started to move with five men carrying the arthi and the woman, who must have been the wife of the deceased, continuing to wail and cry. The procession, consisting mostly of men, made its way forward and crossed the Ring Road at Teku. It was the first time that I had seen all traffic on both sides of the road stop at the same time. We continued to walk to an area near Pachali, where the body was removed from the arthi, and placed on what appeared to be a slab, where various ceremonies were taking place. I soon left and didn’t wait for the body to be taken to an area on the Bagmati where it would be cremated.
In the US, a hearse picks up the family of the departed and whisks them to the funeral home.
I have witnessed cremations a number of times in Varanasi, including the dressing of the bodies, purification in the Ganges, and the funeral pyre. What seemed unusual in Kathmandu and Varanasi as I compared the funerals there to funerals in the US was the public nature of the process. In the latest procession that I had witnessed in Kathmandu, taxis, tractors, motorcycles and cars whizzed by on the dirt road as most of the procession was watching the ceremony. Many people witnessed the procession, as it made its way throughout Kathmandu, which is very different from the private nature of a funeral in the US.
The public nature of things possibly makes death more acceptable and natural. Everybody on the path of the procession somehow took part, looking and then moving their hand numerous times from their head to what appeared to be their heart and back again. In the US, a hearse picks up the family of the departed (who are mostly wearing sunglasses to hide their tears), and whisks them to the funeral home, where a lot of money is spent on a plot, a casket, and a ceremony. Although I’m not really clear why this is the case in the US, except to support a funeral industry, or to hide tears, but what I found was that it the money was not about a beautiful casket, but more about how this was the natural order of things.
My life during the past four years in India and Nepal has been so much about giving, as after all I am a volunteer. I thoroughly enjoy this and have no reservations about it. But I have also learned so much from what I have seen. In many ways, this will hopefully help me become more accepting of the natural order of things, as the contrast between life and death in this part of the world and the US is so very stark. As I spend more time in this part of the world and become more connected, I hope that when I am no more, I also will be cremated on the banks of one of the sacred rivers, and mix and flow with generations of those that have gone before me.
The author has been a volunteer at VSO Nepal since June 2012, working as a partnership builder in the corporate and media sectors.