At Pashupati Aryaghat, the mood is always somber. People come here to cremate their loved ones at one of the many ghats by the banks of the sacred Bagmati river.
On this particular afternoon, a body is burning on a pyre and the deceased’s friends and family members are there to say their last goodbyes. As the lapping flames consume the dead, the mourning family sits there still, watching the fire intently—as though seeking some sort of catharsis, a closure. Friends and neighbors approach them to offer condolence. These exchanges are brief and in hushed tones.
While all this is happening, the cremator Ganesh Dhakal sits alone on one of the metal benches, separated from the rest. His gaze is fixed on the burning pyre. Every now and then, he gets up, moves towards the blazing heap with a bamboo pole on his hands, and prods the red-hot logs. He is making sure the body is burning properly.
Clad in a smoke-stained white dhoti, he returns to his seat and once again proceeds to look at the pyre. It’s hard to discern his emotion at this moment. He seems steely, mirthless.
I am wrong. Dhakal is very much a family man with a wife and nine children. For him burning the dead is just a job, even if an unusual one.
“I’ve been here for 40 years,” the 57-year-old says. “I came to Kathmandu to find a proper job but fate had other plans.”
Born to a poor family in Nagarkot of Bhaktapur district, Dhakal came to Kathmandu in 1982 with a dream of working for a big company. He was just 16 then.
One of the first things he did after arriving in Kathmandu was visit the Pashupatinath temple. For a young boy, looking for a job, Dhakal says, it was fortuitous that he came across the Aryaghat cremators who tasked him with carrying logs to burn bodies.
“I was desperate to make a living in the city, so I happily took the offer,” Dhakal says.
He brought logs for the cremators and watched them at their job. But being a cremator was not something he aspired to be. He still dreamt of a normal job.
But as the years went on, Dhakal says, he realized his prospect of getting other jobs was limited. To survive in the city, he still needed to earn more than what he was earning at the time.
“Becoming a cremator was my only option,” he says. “I didn’t have time or choice.”
Having burned hundreds of bodies over the decades, Dhakal says he has learned to separate his personal and professional lives. Whatever he does for a job, he leaves it at Aryaghat. At home, he takes on his family role—as a husband, a father, and the family’s breadwinner.
Dhakal lives in Chabahil with his wife, who suffers from a medical condition where she can’t walk, and their six daughters and three sons. He burns the dead so that his family can survive in Kathmandu.
When Dhakal was just starting off as a cremator, he tells me, he used to get emotional.
“I used to get carried away by the sadness of the lost lives and their grieving families that came here every day. I have learned to cope with my emotions over the years,” he says, “to see it as just something I do.”
Between our conversation, Dhakal has been approaching the pyre to give a few nudges to the burning logs with his bamboo pole. By now, my impression of him has already changed. He is very much capable of human emotions. The only thing that separates him from most others is that he can compartmentalize his emotions—hence his nonchalance to burning bodies.
“People keep asking me why I chose to be a cremator when I had a choice to get other jobs. But the truth is that any other choice wouldn’t have helped me get out of poverty,” Dhakal says. “When I decided to become a cremator, I was already sinking in poverty. This was the only skill I could easily learn and I was already working at Aryaghat.”
He earns Rs 1,500 for cremating a body, which he does once every four to five days.
Dhakal says he has long forgotten his boyhood dream of joining a big company and accepted his current situation.
“Once I got used to this work, I never thought of quitting and looking for other jobs. After all, this job helped me raise my family,” he says.
He plans on continuing so long as his health and strength permit him to do so.
The burning pyre has now crumbled into a heap of smoldering ashes. Dhakal gets up to help the priest to collect asthu (cremated remains) to hand them over to the family members.
The funeral attendees begin filing away, saying their condolences to bereaved family members. Soon, the funeral ceremony is completed, and the family members of the deceased also leave Aryaghat.
Dhakal splashes water over the cremation platform, washing away the remaining coals and ashes into the Bagmati river. Another body will soon be cremated at this spot, and Dhakal will be there for the job.
“Again, it’s just a job,” he tells me calmly, “and someone has to do it.”