ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Call of the Funeral Pyre

Burning the Dead: Hindu Nationhood and the Global Construction of Indian Tradition by David Arnold, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2021; pp 268, $70.


Amitav Ghosh writes about the horror and delight that Egyptian villagers expressed when they were told that many Indians burn their dead. The horror was caused, among other things, by Islamic ideals about the Day of Judgment when the dead were resurrected and made to account for their deeds. If the body was burned, what remained to be resurrected, to be judged? The delight in the Egyptians’ responses was produced by the very same reason—burning meant nobody or nothing was left to be judged, and hence they could live as they pleased without fearing the Last Day (Ghosh 2002: 6–7). This ambiguity and multivocality has been an important feature of cremation in its modern history, concurs David Arnold in the book under review. Cremation in India was the object of intense attention for the British colonisers, missionaries and European travelers. The open-air, wood-fueled funeral pyre was an “utter abomination” and “a moving spectacle that captured much that was noble and inspiring about India” (p 21). It was condemned as unhygienic and offensive, but was not shunned altogether. The hot and humid Indian climate that accelerated putrefaction meant that cremation was the most efficient and sanitary way to dispose the dead, colonial officials realised (pp 58–59). For instance, the Bombay plague of the late 19th century underscored the need for cremation to curb the spread of the epidemic (pp 70–72). What was considered the grounds for its rejection became the grounds for its qualified endorsement.

Upper caste Hindus who treated cremation as an integral element of their faith, unlike for several lower caste, Dalit and tribal communities who practised other forms like burial, strongly resisted British criticisms of open-air cremation (pp 62–67). Cremations were not stopped, but cremation grounds were insulated from public view with the construction of walls, for example, in Kolkata (p 58). “Subject to suitable regulation and technical accommodation, the burning ghat might thus be accommodated within the modern, sanitary city and even become one of its exemplary sites” (p 56). Arnold sketches out a complex process wherein simplistic distinctions between tradition versus modernity are meaningless. Cremation changed in character as Indians (mainly upper caste Hindus) rallied to its defence responding to the pressures of the modern state.

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Updated On : 14th Aug, 2021
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