While on our way to weekend grocery shopping last evening, my hubby at the wheels asked me if I had come across even a single death procession in the Middle East in all these years. I said, ‘No.’ For that matter, I told him neither had we witnessed a death procession in Malaysia that was our place of residence for four years. How come I never thought of it for so long!
Death is a big matter in India. Processions for the dead are very common that may block traffic. It is a very macabre thing to write about I know, but I thought I have to write it down. Today happens to be Mahalaya Amavasya, which is special for Hindu ancestors. Millions around the country take a dip in our holy rivers and offer ‘tharpana’ in memory of their forefathers.
I was raised in a very shielded secure world until my mother passed away when I was still in school. Until then, I had only heard about death and had seen a few processions on my way back from school that would totally scare me. My mother would tell me, they were taking ‘kanmoodi swamy’ in procession. Means, God with closed eyes. To us Hindus, the dead immediately transform into God. We forget what kind of humans they were in their lifetimes. Once a person passes away, we celebrate the dead as God. We forgive their misdoings. Only the good things about them are to be highlighted and remembered. We also have annual rituals commemorating the dead in our families. Failing to honour the dead with appropriate religious rites may incur their wrath and we could get cursed with ‘pitru dosham.’ That is why we feed the crows everyday in our terraces, believing they are our ancestors waiting for our food!
Until the ’80s, the dead used to be carried on shoulders by minimum four men (relatives) for cremation. Whatever the distance (may be 3-4 km). Hindus do not have casket. Hindus lay their dead on coconut palm mat that is spun between two bamboo poles that the pallbearers have to carry. One can see this in Bollywood films. Even in modern times, this one ritual has not changed. The open procession could be a shocker to little children in those days.
Now no more it is so. Things changed by late ’80s. By then the black van had arrived on the scene. Plus the freezer facility. For even cremation now, we have only electric crematorium. No more wood burning.
The black vans get replaced by even more grander carriers in Chennai these days. With seating arrangement etc. Playing up to the gallery. Quite a show. Death is no more so raw as in my mother’s times. To a significant degree, the effect stands muted today.
Big send off to the dead. Ceremonial. Obstructing traffic. Drawing unnecessary public attention.
What irritates me most is how these processions hinder traffic in the metro. Many times when I would be on my way somewhere, the mourners also happened to throw rose petals etc., into the auto (rickshaw) i had hired. It is such a disturbance to our peace of mind. Mood spoiler. Especially if you are on way to temple, etc. There are some processions with even band !!! Can’t get gross than this!
I wonder why are we Indians like this. Why can’t we do anything quiet. The black vans and other death vans are prominent in the city roads almost every single day. Chennai’s population is 10 million approximately. You have to book for cremation immediately when death occurs, if you want it in time! And don’t forget to take the Aadhar card of the deceased to the crematorium!!! Nothing less is admissible!
There are many things we can learn from others. Out of which, we have to learn first how to behave at death. How to quietly mourn the passing away of a dear one. How to give some dignity to the dead. How to conduct ourselves with dignity.
In lower middle class Indian homes (labour class), the men take to the bottle after cremation . To relieve their pain. What about the ladies. Men can pee wherever they want, men can booze to relieve their stress, however women have to be that strong pillar to take in everything and remain standing, upholding the family tree and customs and traditions is it!
A 10 to 16 day ritual then follows in Hindu homes after someone’s passing. Highly religious. Then a monthly observance as per Hindu calendar. And then finally an annual remembrance – with all the spiritual significance.
I am told, our ancestors live in us. Right. My gene may be millennia old but I am essentially of the same stock that my ancestor was a 1000, 2000 years ago. I owe them that much. And especially if you are a follower of Dharma, it means your bloodline is pedigree and not corrupted for centuries, millennia. Conversion to Hindu Dharma is happening only since the last 100 years or so. Hindus are thoroughbred carefully for eons, generations which makes us unique and special. We have our ancestors to thank for such a thoughtful cultivation and preservation of the Hindu gene. Kula Deivam (family deity) for most Hindu families also may be some long lost ancestors. This is where remembering our forefathers has its relevance.
There are friends and relatives who have donated cows in memory of the dead to ensure heaven to their dear departed family members. I could only think of the calf the cow was separated from. There are those who went to Varanasi (Kashi) in the north and Rameshwaram in south Tamil Nadu to immerse the ashes in river Ganga and in the Indian Ocean. How much the dead were showered with love and respect in their own lifetimes is a million dollar question.
We Hindus also mourn for an year someone’s passing. We do not celebrate Diwali or observe any ‘vrath’ until the first year Devasham or Sraartham (annual religious commemoration). It is a must for us. We are not supposed to even wear new clothes in this one year period, but it is no more so for last many years. In digital age, a lot has changed in our society. Still, there is something that still needs a thinking-over.
Why is death so much observable in Indian roads. Why is that we have never seen death in other countries of our residence. And why do we Hindus have to appease our ancestors after they leave us, when we so much displease them when they are alive and kicking in our midst.
Don’t others have families too. Don’t they miss or mourn their beloveds. Are we Indians the only ones with emotions. Why are we overdoing even such a thing as close and intimate and personal and private like death in the family. How can we even make this a public affair by obstructing traffic. Why should others even know about our grief. Why should others suffer for our loss. Others totally unconnected to us.
I am proud of my Hindu roots, but there is a lot we Hindus can learn from others about life and death. Why can’t we just GO quietly. In peace. Om Shanthi!
Daughters may be denied the last rites as sons, but daughters can still fulfill their longings by giving their beloved parents and forefathers the respects they deserve at Kashi and Rameshwaram and Gaya. These are the only shrines/holy places in India that allow Hindu women to belatedly offer ‘tharpanam’ to their ancestors with/without an intermediary. These places are in my bucket list. There is also the Shraddha Perumal temple at Nenmeli, near Chennai that serves the same purpose.