Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Death Customs


Today a bandh (general strike) has us trapped in our hotel. Yesterday we watched a woman die.

She lay below us and across the narrow, polluted Bagmati River on a rock-paved ramp, her feet partially submerged in the holy water. Family members were grouped at the top of the bank and stood on stairs flanking the ramp.

Imagine how it was. The same stairs continue along the river in both directions. On one side they disappear into a gorge that borders the temple compound, on the other, they pass under a bridge and continue along under ghats or funeral platforms that are lined up on top of the bank. Three of the ghats burn, the wood on them five tiers high, the scent of the smoke strong in the air. It drifts in white clouds toward the great dome of the Pashupatinath Temple with its golden trident, spreading to encompass dozens of lesser domes and smaller, but equally gold, tridents.

A chanting family fills the big temple’s second-story terrace, thirty or forty feet above the woman and directly across from us. At irregular intervals temple bells ring, summoning the gods. The woman doesn’t stir … appears completely lifeless.

As for us, we’re on another terrace, one with concrete railings and benches. It’s overhung with trees and backed by a high-fenced nature preserve where a little spotted deer just jumped in alarm, spooked by a pack of monkeys. A street lined with weathered, domed shrines runs to one side of our terrace and hermits’ caves and small huts can be seen on the steep slopes of the gorge. Women in long cotton skirts and sweaters sweep their stick-brooms toward us. A dozen or more men occupy the benches, watching.

Mitra, my guide, has already explained the funeral processes and customs and has turned to tutoring me in Nepalese political realities.
The dying woman may be dead. A figure in a red sari comes down to kneel beside her, pushing the men aside.

“Peace,” Mitra tells me. “It is like a dream of prosperity. We are all waiting for peace.” He doesn’t look at me as he speaks but stares down from the parapet.

“After the massacre, we were very happy.” He refers to the 2001 shooting of the royal family by the Crown Prince. “Many corrupt people were dead. We thought the new king would be strong and good. But only result was new corrupt people. Nothing changes. This is why when there is call for julu, we come. You understand? Great mass of people come together to make demonstration … hundreds and thousands … to make change.”
I remember his words the next day. Not only have the Maoists called for a general strike, the first since the king was deposed last May, but they have summoned the people to yet another julu—a mass meeting. Our hotel is largely unaffected, occupying an expansive, walled compound at a distance of some thirty minutes from central Kathmandu. Here we have a shopping arcade, street vendors and local shops, a casino, restaurants, facilities ranging from a watchmaker to a garage, and, of course, the hotel. Those who don’t live on the premises came to work early today, before the bandh. Many of them … those that can … will leave in time to attend the julu.

Big blue government busses arrive just before ten, a long convoy of them. Their doors wheeze open and armed policemen jump to the ground. This is airport transport for hotel guests. Everyone flying out today must depart now since the taxi drivers have joined the strike and Maoist roadblocks bar the way to the airport. Rickshaw drivers—the poorest of the poor—are exempt from the bandh, of course, but we are too far from the city center for them. So, hotel guests with airline reservations load into the busses. No one questions the wisdom of sending police escorts to usher foreigners through Maoist-controlled roadblocks or to face students who, we hear, who have already begun setting fires to piles of tires at intersections.

Two of the busses fill with Thai Buddhist monks in their bright orange cotton robes, worn here against the chill of Nepal over sweaters and topped with knit caps. They have been on a pilgrimage, staying in a five star Crowne Plaza hotel. Monks? What’s wrong with this picture? For that matter, what’s wrong with the rest of the picture?

But back to the terrace … yesterday … a new procession has arrived, this one carrying a body on a mat. With care, the mourners place him on a flower-strewn stair just below the top of the bank, and two people stay to do something. I can’t see what. Mithra says, “In two hours from dead, whether in hospital or house, the body must come here.”

Speed is an imperative. The faster you get rid of your early remains, the Hindus believe, the longer it takes for the elements to reconstitute and for your next reincarnation to begin. Or so Mithra says—my guru on death customs.

People have gathered around us, and I realize that we’re standing in the only place on this side of the river that provides a clear view of the dying woman. “Are these relatives?” I ask.

“No. They just watch. A person who dies here in the Bagmati may go straight to the top,” Mitra says. He means that the person breaks the reincarnation cycle and achieves Nirvana. Timing is everything, which is the purpose of a two-story white house just above and behind the ramp. There, if you have enough money to pay for the service, you can wait for death in the care of a person whose job it is to forecast that death within minutes.

Do people revive on the ramp?

“Of course,” Mitra says. “It can happen.”

Death more than revival, however, seems close and imminent in Nepal, particularly as the blue and white busses pull away from the Crowne Plaza. A new friend stands next to me. “The Maoists have killed over 15,000 people,” he says. “But they are very popular, and the people do what they say. Which is why you must not go into the street today. Many people, you understand, do not read or write. They hear on radio of bandh. They are ignorant. If you go into the streets, these are poor people … you understand.”

His words make a certain amount of sense. The Maoists have come to power on the back of violence and with the support of the untouchable caste. One tall white woman, alone, might look like a reasonable target to such people.
Later, after a discussion of the current reason for a bandh, he says, “So. Will you go to the julu?”

I remember the woman, waiting to die. “I am not ready for the temple ghats,” I say.

He laughs.

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