Nepali communities that do not cremate say they have no space in Kathmandu to bury their deadOnce the Shleshmantak forest was a free-for-all graveyard, but now there has been a government ban on burials within the Pashupati area.
In February 2016, Shobha Sunuwar lost her brother Nawaraj in a car accident. Sunuwar wanted to bury her brother with full funeral rites but as burials had been banned in the area close to the Pashupatinath temple, Nawaraj’s body was cremated in an electric crematorium.
“I have heard that if you pay Rs20,000 to Rs25,000 as a bribe, there are people who’ll bury bodies in the Shleshmantak forest,” said Sunuwar. “But who wants to get entangled in such a mess?”
According to the 39-year-old social worker, it is unfair that they have to compromise on their beliefs. It’s been more than three years since she lost her brother but her heart continues to ache as her “brother’s soul will never be at peace”.
“If he were buried, he would have turned into a pod and later a beautiful tree—that’s the value of burial in our community, you get a new life,” Sunuwar said.
The Kirat community, which also includes Rais and Limbus, along with Muslims and Christians, bury their dead. But with land prices skyrocketing in the Capital, there are fewer spaces where these communities can bury their loved ones.
In Kathmandu, the Shleshmantak forest near Pashupati once was a free-for-all graveyard, in which many communities buried their dead. But in 1998 the government announced a ban on all burials in the UNESCO heritage site. Although the prohibition was lifted with specific conditions—that no concrete be used for gravestones, among others—it was reinstated in 2011, putting a permanent halt to burials in the Pashupati area.
Since the 2013 ban, numerous Kiratis living in Kathmandu, like Sunuwar, have taken to cremating their dead in the electric crematorium, according to Rai. Others continue to bury relatives in the Shleshmantak forest despite the ban, he said.
“How could the government make such a drastic decision without informing us and giving us dedicated space for burials?” said Janak Rai, general secretary of the Kirat Rai Yayokkha, a Kirat social organisation.
While Hindus mostly cremate their dead, in certain cases they bury their dead too.
Children who die under the age of 15 are generally buried in the Pashupati area, but their guardians must gain permission from the Pashupati Area Development Trust, said Pradip Dhakal, the Trust’s member secretary.
According to Hindu religious beliefs, cremation separates the soul from the physical body, giving it new life. In Kirati culture, there is a belief that we are born from this soil and we should go back to the soil, said Rai.
“Our ancestors have all been buried in the Shleshmantak jungle for centuries but now, with the ban, we need to come up with a long-term plan,” he said.
It is not clear what exactly led to the ban but Rai says it had to do with the concrete structures built as grave markers in the forest, which is part of the Pashupati area UNESCO heritage site. But there have been other factors at play, since it wasn’t just Kiratis who were using the forest as a graveyard—Christians also buried their dead there.
“Christians were raising crosses over the graves,” said Dhakal. “We all need to respect each other’s religion but you can’t cross your lines and promote your religion in a sacred Hindu area. That’s unacceptable.”
After the ban, the Christian community attempted to move away and build a graveyard elsewhere, according to CB Gahatraj, president of Nepal’s Federation of National Christians.
“We had purchased some land in Lele for burial, but due to the constant protest of villagers, we had to halt funeral services there,” said Gahatraj, who believes that if the government provides them with a dedicated space, they will not face any kind of protests from the Hindu community.
“Now, we don’t have a choice,” he said. “Our funerals happen late at night around the Trishuli river because we have no space to bury our dead.”
The Muslim community, meanwhile, has long been carrying out burials in two graveyards in the Swayambhu area. One belongs to the Kashmiri Masjid and the other to the Jame Masjid, two of Kathmandu’s most prominent mosques.
“The Kashmiri masjid graveyard is exclusively for the original Muslim families who have resided in Kathmandu since the Malla era. But we have given a large portion of our land to the Jame Masjid to cater to Muslims from across the country,” said Mohammed Fazil, spokesperson for the Kashmiri Masjid.
The Jame graveyard, or kabristan, is currently undergoing landscaping to make more space for burials, according to Abdul Shamim, president of the Nepal Jame Masjid.
“With Kathmandu’s population increasing by the day, there is no burial space left so we need to work on what we have to make space,” said Shamim.
But even here, local sentiment is rising against the graveyards, which were once surrounded by dense forest. Those forests are gone, replaced by new urban homes filled with people who don’t appreciate living next to a graveyard, according to Shamim.
The Muslim community had also demanded land for a graveyard on Bade hill, where a Pakistan International Airlines plane crashed in 1992. “Unfortunately, our repeated pleas for land at Bade have been ignored,” said Shamim.
Unlike the Kirats, Muslims and Christians are not willing to compromise on their beliefs and will not take up electric cremation any time soon.
“We don’t want conflict, but we are equal citizens of this country too. We need our space,” said Gahatraj.
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