Agra’s dilemma over the dead

April 4th, 2011 - 12:29 pm ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata Party Agra, April 4 (IANS) It is a dilemma that can probably be resolved only if the dead could return and pick up one of the two options - the electric crematorium or the traditional cremation ghat in Agra, both under the shadow of the Taj Mahal.

Few cities in India can boast of such a historical final resting place as in Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, the monument where love rests eternally.

Nestled in the shadowy green ambience of the world heritage monument is the Taj Ganj Shamshan Ghat, the traditional cremation ground in existence for more than 500 years.

“It’s much older than the Taj Mahal itself,” claimed Agra’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) corporator Deepak Khare.

Many efforts to shift the cremation ground from its present site to protect the Taj Mahal from air pollution have found strong opposition from those who follow the traditional Hindu religious rituals for the dead.

A high-powered committee of experts headed by S. Varadarajan had recommended the closure of the cremation ground or its shifting to another place. M.C. Mehta, lawyer and an environment activist, had also called for shifting the site.

However, the issue being very sensitive, the district administration has been caught on the backfoot.

“An electric crematorium was opened in the neighbourhood to prevent air pollution when bodies are cremated over the pyre, but there are not many supporting it,” said Ashok Goyal of the 130-year-old Kshetra Bajaja Samiti, which runs both the facilities.

Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society, said: “It is as much a tussle between traditional beliefs and modernity as one between modern-day environmentalists and those who prefer status quo.”

The old cremation site with its pyres is called the Moksh Dham while the electric crematorium is called the Baikunth Dham.

“Both ways the dead is promised a pious journey to heaven as every believer wants,” said Chandan Singh, the caretaker at the electric crematorium.

“Only one or two cremations a day take place here while the conventional ghat sees over a 100 every day,” Singh added.

Agra has four official burning ghats in different areas, but the Taj Ganj cremation ground is the most popular.

“People consider it a privilege to be cremated here on a pyre of wood with ghee, camphor and sandalwood powder spread over it,” said Ganga Ram working at the ghat.

“On the one side is the holy river Yamuna and on the other you have the Taj Mahal. The whole area is covered by green foliage,” he added.

According to Ram, a number of foreigners visit the cremation ghat daily to learn about the Hindu rituals for the dead.

The managing committee provides Ganga jal (water from the Ganga) free and there is a prayer hall where a group of sadhus chant “Hari Nam” dhun round the clock, he added.

Two years ago students of the local Fine Arts Institute painted the approach road with pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses along the one-kilometre stretch branching off from the main road connecting the Agra Fort with the Taj Mahal.

Why has the electric crematorium not proved popular?

Bankey Lal Maheshwari, a social worker, has the answer.

“Superstitious beliefs. Only unclaimed (”lawaris”) bodies sent by the police reach the electric crematorium. On their own, people, even those with modest means, are reluctant to use the modern facility, perhaps out of fear of the supernaturals,” said Maheshwari, who runs the Sri Nath ji Nishulk Jal Sewa network of 50 water huts.

“Time will come when there will be no more firewood left as the green cover is getting depleted fast,” he warned.

The conservationists see danger in the smoke rising from the cremation ground that hits the Taj Mahal.

However, the groups supporting the Taj Ganj shamshan ghat insist that the cremation ground has no role in contributing to the air pollution.

“In fact, the ghee, camphor, the sandalwood paste and the cow dung cakes or the firewood used only help enrich the environment,” Mahesh Chandra Sharma, a priest, said.

Nandan Shrotriya, another priest, supported him.

(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at brij.k@ians.in)

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