It looked like they were carrying a macabre birthday present, wrapped up in brightly-coloured cloth, adorned with balloons, silver, red and green tinsel, on a flimsy bamboo frame. A man was at each corner and a dozen others were chanting. They were moving quickly but instead of turning right where the the sign said “Entry”, they turned left, through the exit. They were taking a body to be burned.
“Thank you for bringing me here. I am going on alone,” said the inscription on a mural which depicted the circle of life.
Shiva is the god of death, destruction and chaos. He rules over the Nigambodh Ghat crematorium on the banks of the Yamuna, less than a kilometre north of the Red Fort. His image is pervasive, with his pale blue skin, a trident, a snake around his neck and the crescent moon in his long hair.
The procession stopped, perhaps in contemplation of their dead loved one, or maybe to transact the cremation. About sixty bodies are cremated here each day. It is free, apart from the cost of fuel.The authorities encourage CNG (natural gas) or the electric furnace rather than using a bonfire of wood. For Rs 2,200 (about £25) you can buy enough branches and logs from a warehouse around the back. Would the body be burned on the banks of the Yamuna or under cover in one of the forty or so fireplace/concrete pyre platforms?
I walked to the riverbank. There were several bodies trussed in white cotton cloth, lying on the sandy mud. There were two cremation bonfires smoking and smouldering away. Their decorative frames were broken and discarded laid to one side, the tinsel fluttering in the light breeze.
Though the surface of the Yamuna was oily and dull, it was still flowing swiftly. A rowing boat on the other side was making slow progress against the current.
One body was surrounded by men, with a pandit chanting prayers. He instructed the husband when anoint his dead wife with ghee or sugar. Her face was uncovered. She still wears her jewellery and best sari. I felt uncomfortable about taking a photograph, but one man was using his smartphone to video the proceedings. Photography used to be taboo, but nowadays, most people have a camera on their mobile phones and want to keep a record of their loved one.
There was no smell of death, no odour of burned flesh. It was very business-like. The cycle of rebirth means that the soul lives on. I saw no one lamenting their loss. Barbers were on hand to shave the scalp of bereaved men, leaving a small lock of hair over the occiput. This is called a chupiya.
Opposite the raised funeral pyres, there was a large, covered swimming pool. At first I mistakenly thought that mourners may wish to take a cleansing bath after a funeral. It was too cold today, but perhaps during the summer, it will get more use, I wondered. I even had a random thought about using the heat of the cremation fire to warm the water in the swimming pool. Then it dawned on me that this pool contains water from three sacred rivers, Ganges, Saraswati and Yamuna. Mourners wash the bodies here in the pool before cremation.
On the roof of the pool there were images of Radha, Krishna, a peacock and a cow. In another part of the complex, there was a statue of Buddha. There were other deities in glass cubicles, but it was clear that Shiva reigned supreme here.
Beyond the car park there was a rubbish dump filled with piles of funeral paraphernalia. And beside that, there was a pleasant park, with well-trimmed lawns, colourful flowerbeds and shady places where one could sit and contemplate reincarnation.
Lord Brahma recovered his lost memory (and his books) after bathing on this site. Nigambodh means realisation of knowledge. Perhaps coming to the ghat makes us acutely aware of our own mortality.