We returned to Tansen on Sept. 29. As we were on the bus that day, I got a text from Ganesh (my assistant and the guest house host) that his father was ill. We met him that evening, and even though he was still feeling weak, he was planning to walk back down to his home in the village (with the help of his son and grandson.) We were happy to see that he seemed better. Ganesh’s dad had struggled for many years with alcoholism, and his body was starting to wear out.
The next day, Ganesh left for a trip to India. Before he returned, he was getting calls from his family urging him to hurry back as his father was more seriously ill. The family finally hired a vehicle to bring his dad up to the hospital again and he was admitted with severe pneumonia. This was on Tuesday – and Ganesh returned that evening from his trip.
Even though his father was quite ill, he seemed to rally after being in the hospital and being on oxygen and medication. However, by the end of the week he had reached a plateau and didn’t seem to improve any further.
On Monday morning, Ganesh came to our door quite early and asked Les to come down to check on his father. Within a few minutes, Ganesh was back at our door, asking me to come with him to the guest house so that he could show me where his keys and important information was located – because he knew that his father’s death was imminent. He also knew that once his father died, he would not be able to return to his home or to work until the 13 days of required mourning was finished.
Ganesh’s dad died at 6:30 am on Monday, October 10. He, along with his 2 younger brothers, were all there with their father. One was crying softly, but it wasn’t until Les pulled the sheet up over his father’s face that Ganesh broke into loud sobs.
Things went quickly after that. They found a jeep, and along with the body (wrapped in a sheet) and the rest of the family, they rode down to the village where Ganesh’s mom and older brother were waiting. The other relatives and neighbors soon gathered, and they soon had a full bus, a jeep and about 20 motorcycles (all men) who traveled with Ganesh and his father’s body down to the river at Ramdi. This is the Kali Gandaki River – which eventually flows into the Ganges River. It is considered a holy place, and is where people take their loved ones for cremation.
While there by the river, Ganesh and his 3 brothers all had to remove their regular clothes, and wrap in a long white cloth. They also had their heads shaved – except for one tuft of hair which is left on the back of the head. After that, the body was burned, and the ashes were thrown into the river.
For the next 12 days, Ganesh, his brothers, Ganesh’s mom, and the wives of Ganesh and his brothers, all have to observe what is called Kriya. It is a time of mourning which is directed by the Hindu priests. Because Ganesh and his family are Brahmin (high caste) the rules are often more strict. Ganesh’s mom (the widow) has to remain isolated in the sense that no one is allowed to touch her. She has to prepare her one meal a day on her own – after doing a ritual washing. The meal can only consist of rice, ghee, cucumbers, white radish, lemon pieces or juice, and some sugar if desired. No salt is allowed for the entire time of mourning. This meal has to be cooked over an open fire.
We went to the village house on Wednesday to pay our respects. The widow was by herself at her little place to cook.
The 4 sons (Ganesh and brothers) were at their place to prepare their food. They also were being directed to do a specific “puja” (worship) in order to help their father’s spirit get into heaven. There is a priest who comes daily to the house in order to make sure all these things are followed properly. Neighbors and more distant family members stay nearby to help – giving tea to guests, and doing the things needed to help the family in mourning.
The 3 daughter in laws also have their own place to make their fire and cook their food. They all have the same restrictions on what they can and cannot eat.
To our western eyes – this seems like a punishment for the family who are already mourning the loss of their husband and father. Is there any purpose to following all these rather empty seeming rituals?
For me, the most difficult part of this to understand is the isolation. If I had just lost my husband or my father, I would want to be able to touch the rest of my family – to both get and receive comfort. Hugging isn’t a big part of the culture here, but even just giving someone a hand squeeze or shoulder pat would be helpful.
Even at the end of the 13 days, life will never be the same again for Ganesh’s mom. She will never be able to wear any red clothes again – and wouldn’t be able to marry again, either. Life for widows is quite hard in the Hindu religion.
One interesting note about how life is different in KTM from the rest of Nepal – even when it comes to Kriya. Wealthy businessmen and govt officials in KTM have somehow arranged for their kriya to last only 13 hours instead of 13 days – they don’t have the time to spend on this, so have gotten permission to shorten it significantly.
The hospital here in Tansen actually allows people to have leave (with pay) for the required kriya they have to do. It would be very difficult if they didn’t do this.
Please keep Ganesh and his family in your prayers as they head into another week of doing this mourning.