Kumbh Mela 2013: Picking Flowers

Allahabad is a city of 1.2 million people, and despite the proximity of its bigger, noisier neighbour, the Kumbh Mela, life goes on there—including death. The funeral ghats on the Ganges were moved away from the sangam—the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers—for the duration of the festival, but they are still within the Mela grounds, and still upstream of that popular bathing spot. Just a little further upstream.

The garlanded body of a small boy arrives at the funeral ghats near Allahabad. Photo: Laura Spinney.


This morning, two funerals were already going on at the water’s edge when an all-male procession approached across the sand carrying a small bundle garlanded with marigolds on a bamboo stretcher—an eight-year-old boy who died yesterday from an electric shock. According to Hindu ritual, the body is laid on a pile of wood beside the river and set fire to. Once the fire has gone out, the mourners return to collect the charred fragments of bone—in Hindi it’s referred to as “picking flowers”—which are then thrown from a clay pot into the river. Women are not allowed to attend funerals at the ghats.

Cremations are a minor source of pollution in the Ganges compared to untreated sewage and toxic chemicals, but partially cremated bodies are a gruesome sight and add to the river’s already high bacterial count. So in 1977 the World Bank provided funds for the construction of an electric crematorium in Allahabad, in the hope that people could be weaned away from the traditional pyre to a cleaner, more efficient method. Sixteen years later, a second one was built.


Gherao works at one of two electric crematoria in Allahabad. Photo: Laura Spinney.


Gherao works at the older of the two crematoria, which is on the west bank of the Ganges—the Allahabad side—and also within the Mela grounds. His ID badge has the word Dom or Untouchable printed on it, and by lunchtime today he had cremated two bodies. When he started working there 12 years ago, he says, they cremated about 60 people a month. Now the figure is close to five times that. People are converting, in his view, because electric cremations are cheaper—450 rupees (USD10) compared to around 3000 (USD55) for the traditional method—and quicker. Most importantly, perhaps, the last part of the ritual remains the same: the flowers are still picked and thrown into the river.




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Meet the Author
Laura Spinney is a science journalist based in Lausanne, Switzerland who writes for The Economist, Nature and National Geographic, among others. She is also the author of two novels in English, as well as a human portrait of a European city, Rue Centrale, which is out this month in French (publisher: Editions L'Age d'Homme). Visit Laura Spinney's website for more information and contact details.