Hindu funeral ceremony in Beni, Nepal

Life and Death in Mallaj (Part. 2)


Sky is roaring behind the cloudy hills. The first rain drops fall sparsely on our shoulders and light becomes darkness. Sujan is here among the villagers. “One of my aunts committed suicide” he announces, “I think you knew her, she was with us during the celebrations”. I am shocked. A few minutes ago this person was here among us but now she’s gone. Devastated, her husband lies on the front of his house and the wailings of his daughters add up to the ambient sadness. Villagers catch one of her which became so hysteric that she can not really control her body anymore. “We are going to call the police. We can not move the body until they are here.” explains Sujan.


During the night and after the police came, the body is carried away to Beni hospital. Under the glow of candles and torchlights a handle of men walk down the same steep path we climbed before to reach the village. I will not join them until the next morning, along with some family members. Atmosphere at the hospital entrance is morose. Women are sitting together on the ground, forming a circle of solidarity in which they try to comfort each other. On the other side men are waiting in a deadly silence the moment when we will carry the body to the river to proceed to its incineration. A few words sometimes break up the heavy atmosphere although the waiting seems to be lasting for ever.


Numerous indiscret persons gather on the walls surrounding the hospital. They snese death is around and wait for the body to come out of the stone house as well. Is it compassion or simple curiosity? I will never know but I am not surprised. The concept of privacy in Nepal not exactly being nowadays concern. The long expected moment finally comes after a few hours, the stretcher carrying the dead body coming out of the stone shelter. First, a few men holding a white fabric open the cortege, followed by stretcher and relatives. The sound created by big seashells used as incongruous music instruments rhythm the walk to the river. A short stop in front of a sawmill gives us the opportunity to carry some wood pieces that will be used to build the funeral pyre where the last goodbye will be said.


The corpse is gently dropped off on the freshly built pyre. The yellow fabric covering the women is removed, letting only a white shroud masking her nudity. Relatives say a last goodbye to their mother, their sister, their aunt, their friend. One by one, they pour some water on her body, a pack of cigarettes is dropped at her feet and once the farewell ceremony is over, fire is set to the pyre which will consume for the next hour. Family will stay until the body is fully consumed.


A short moment before the ceremony started Sujan told me “You know, you are very lucky to be experiencing this!” … “Well, I am not sure the word lucky is the correct one in this kind of situation” I answered, “But this is definitely an excellent opportunity to discover your culture!”. At this moment I still had no idea what I would experience after the funeral. During the next thirteen days, children of the dead women must follow a specific mourning ritual in which their relatives will help. During this ritual, if it happens that someone unfortunately touch one of the children, they will not be able to eat their next meal.


The son of the dead women is currently working abroad, her brother will then replace him during the ritual. During the next thirteen days he will only be dressed with a white fabric covering his head and his private parts. First, he has to shave his head (the same applies for the husband). Then, a long process begins where he drops water over his head before building an earth and animal excrements pile on which rice and incense are scattered. After this prelude, the preparation of the meal starts. While his relatives build a plate using a banana tree leave’s rod, he lights a fire and cooks rice and ginger. He then eats his meal as his friends, on the other side of the shelter discuss and laugh, which sometimes makes him laugh the same way and join the conversation.

Once the ritual is over it is time to go back to the village where relatives take over day and night to keep company to the widowed, playing cards and smoking cigarettes. Alone behind a carpet surrounding the place where the corpse was found, sitting onstraw and covered only by the ritual fabric and a blanket, the brother watches. It is forbidden to anyone else to enter here.


The same kind of ritual happens in the next house where the daughters of the dead women live, among women.


Life continues in Mallaj and it is soon time for us to go back to Kathmandu. Even considering the tragic events that happened, I keep an excellent memory about these moments spent with those men and women living in a culture which I did not know anything about. A little bit sad, I then leave this place during a cold morning, delighted by the show of the shining Himalayan summits. These men and women might not be rich (in the western meaning of richness), but the love and solidarity I felt in this place are a richness we drastically miss in our “civilized” countries where money and physical goods prime over human realtionships.


* The photographs of the funeral ceremony were made with the agreement of the concerned family. In the beginning I did not wish to photograph this ceremony in order to respect them. However, they have been the ones to insist, whence the missing photographs of the cortege.

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