“We’ve worked here so fucking long, they should give us an award, send us off with flowers and five or seven lakhs,” Gyan Bahadur Acharya told me one morning last January. We were inside the premises of the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, and Acharya, a slight, scowling man, was sitting cross-legged near the steps of the Bhasmeshwor ghat. On a row of raised stone platforms in front of us, bodies burned on wooden funeral pyres. Tending to them were cremators in white dhotis, many of them Acharya’s protégés. One lobbed packets of vegetable oil into a fire, followed by bundles of straw; another, using a long bamboo pole, gently reversed the course of a blackened foot that had drifted from the rest of the body.
Acharya, who is 68 years old, is the oldest cremator at Pashupatinath. While Hindu cremations are usually administered by a family member, the task falls here to professionals, all of whom are Brahmins, and work as contractors for the Pashupati Area Development Trust—a wealthy, politicised institution that manages the temple grounds. When Pashupatinath service staff were put on payroll several years ago, most of the ghat employees, including the 23 cremators, were overlooked. In recent years, the cremators have protested their low pay, and, more pointedly, their lack of a gratuity. In 2015, after several petitions that culminated in a strike, the PADT announced that cremators retiring after ten years of service would receive one lakh Nepali rupees, and those retiring after 15 years would receive a lakh and a half—a fraction of what is paid to permanent staff. Acharya, who has not been able to save enough money to afford retirement, had hoped the gratuity might act as his insurance against poverty. “We finally got one and a half fucking lakhs,” he said. “What do you do with one and a half lakhs? It’s a cigarette allowance.”
The amount seemed to throw into relief the indignities of the work, diminishing decades of “being heated up like metal at a blacksmith’s,” as one cremator put it, in return for an insufficient wage and ridicule from mourners—despite their ritual function as sons of the deceased. People seemed to forget, Acharya said, that he and his colleagues would be the eventual custodians of their remains. Recently, he had heard, a man had gone around the temple calling him a ghatey Brahmin. “We know we’re ghatey Brahmins! Ghatey!” he said. He took a long drag from his cigarette. “If I recognised him, I would have roasted him alive.”
The cremators at Pashupatinath may have chosen their profession—unlike in Varanasi, where cremations are performed by a group of hereditary, oppressed-caste workers—but they are locked into it out of desperation. Deepak Adhikari, who is 34 years old, is one of the youngest cremators. “It’s danger here,” he told me when I first met him. His fingers were studded with burns, and the heat from the pyres had reduced the hair on his forearms to stubs.
Adhikari turned up at the ghat when he was five years old, having fled his abusive father, and soon began carrying straw and wood to the pyres, as a sort of apprentice to the cremators. In his teens, he began to cremate bodies; he recalled spending sleepless nights thinking about the faces of those he had burned. The older workers taught him the cremation rites, as well as techniques to handle unruly bodies, such as those pumped with saline in hospitals, or worse, riddled with carrion insects. Lacking formal education, like many of his colleagues, he has made few attempts to find other work.