01: Vessel   02: Burning   03: Foil
Moving Between (A Reflection), Ankita Mukherji
December 2023

My Didun (left) and Dadu (right) in my parents' home. Courtesy the author 

During a cremation, fire serves as a portal between worlds, allowing passage from this realm to the next. I have only personally witnessed one cremation in my life – my Didun’s.1 It was during the peak of the pandemic in 2020 so my family and I, stuck in Singapore, watched through FaceTime as her lifeless body, wrapped in white sheets, was carried to the pyre. I remember having to turn away from the screen for most of it because it was so painful – the idea that the familiar warmth and curves of her body would soon turn to nothing, and that we couldn’t be with her in those last moments. But the rest of our family was there. My aunts and uncles held up the phone for us to see as her body slowly turned to ash. My Ammo2 was the one who travelled with her remains to release them to Ganga, who then lovingly held and carried them to the sea and beyond. Didun now only existed as millions of tiny specks of dust, scattered into the wind and ocean and no longer visible to the naked eye. A necessary ritual, and one that is emblematic of the way Time is conceptualised in the Hindu consciousness – as a cycle. All things eventually come to an end so that they can begin again in a new form.

Across various Hindu texts such as the Mahabharata and the Puranas, Time is classified into cycles of Yugas (ages) – Satya, Treta, Dwapara, and Kali, of which we are currently in the final. During the last Satya Yuga, humanity flourished. It was a Golden Age. People possessed incredible physical strength and mental prowess, coexisted with each other in peace, and could live up to hundreds of thousands of years. Most significantly, those who lived during this period were spiritually enlightened, possessing an intrinsic connection to the Gods. As the years progressed, society began to deteriorate, developing vices such as greed and vanity and growing more and more distant from the Gods and from each other, until we eventually arrived at our current place in the Kali Yuga. It is projected that at the end of this age, Kalki, the tenth and final incarnation of Lord Vishnu, will come to us and annihilate what is left of our reality, burning it to the ground so that a new Satya Yuga can grow again from the cauterised remains. Time itself never ends. It outlasts us all and moves through successive sequences of birth, gradual deterioration, death, and new beginnings, throughout eternity.

Cremation is a microcosmic enactment of this broader understanding of Time. Our bones, flesh, saliva, and blood, our wrinkles and grey hairs keep us grounded and attached to the earth. They gradually degenerate and grow weaker, moving through their own infinitesimal Yugas. Our Satya, Dwapara, and Treta Yugas are our childhood, youth, and middle age. Old age is our Kali Yuga. Upon death, fire is used to put a sudden and deliberate stop to the body’s ageing process, essentially ending its Kali Yuga. The body is no longer vulnerable to the elements and cannot go through further decomposition. In doing so, the soul is now freed from the mortal world, and the person can move on to the spiritual one to begin a new Satya Yuga.

The carnal is perceived as distinct from the spiritual – one must end for the other to begin, and the two must be kept separate. As a child, I was taught that I should not pray in the same clothes that I had just eaten a meal in, or just gone to the toilet in. Similarly, an important part of the ritual of visiting a temple was also to take a shower and put on a new or freshly cleaned outfit. The bodily – eating and creating waste – had to be kept away from ritual spaces. An expanded manifestation of this is the caste system. Growing up away from India, I was exposed to a very simplified explanation of caste during Hindi lessons at school. Drawing from excerpts and stories from the Rig Veda, an ancient Hindu text, we learned about a supreme being named Purusha whose body designated how labour would be divided in society. From his mouth came the Brahmins, who were priests, spiritual leaders, and academics. His arms bore the Kshatriyas (kings and warriors), his thighs the Vaishyas (merchants, tradesmen, artisans, and landowners), and finally, his feet created the Shudras (peasants and servants). The physical positioning of each group on the deity’s body translated to their place in a hierarchical order. At the top were the Brahmins, and at the bottom were the Shudras. Even further below the Shudras were the Dalits, who fell outside of this classification system, and traditionally dealt with sanitation work, undertaking, and other such labour.

Didun and Dadu in my London home. Courtesy the author

My introduction to the caste system, as a person with Brahmin lineage, raised in Singapore, was as a metaphor from an archaic past, detached from contemporary lived experiences and real, tangible social consequences. Even in this diluted version, it is evident how ideas of purity or impurity are attached to different forms of labour. Being the closest to the Gods and dealing with matters of the mind, Brahmins were also the most venerated. On the other hand, Dalits, who worked closely with human waste, death, and corporeal matters, were placed at the very bottom. The division between the spiritual and the bodily – and therefore the ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ – is thus enacted through this stratification. Although forces of urbanisation, as well as a secular, democratised political system, have somewhat reduced its strength and significance, caste-based discrimination and violence still persists today. As caste is strictly inherited, the differential allocation of capital and resources to groups of higher or lower castes continues to have generational impacts. Shudras and Dalits who were historically deprived of access to education or land ownership naturally continue to face barriers in social and economic mobility today.3 These challenges are further reinforced through widespread prejudice, with Dalit communities stereotypically being branded as ‘untouchable’. Even the right to engage in this crucial cycle of life, death, and spiritual advancement is often denied, with law enforcement authorities or ‘higher-caste’ neighbours refusing families access to cremation grounds.4 As such, the body-spirit dichotomy and its associated notions of purity have been used to dictate how bodies are hierarchised and justify centuries of systemic violence.

It is not this binary itself but rather the transformation from one state of being to the other, that is central to the Hindu cosmology. Moving away from the moralistic connotations of cleansing or purification, fire simply catalyses the necessary passage through cycles of life, death, and rebirth – a journey that every person has the right to go through. When plants or animals die in the wild, their bodies undergo decomposition, and complex organic matter breaks down into simpler chemical substances and gases that are reabsorbed back into the ecosystem. They provide nutrients for the soil and other organisms, eventually allowing new life to grow again in their place. Cremation enacts this process on the body symbolically. Although physically prevented from decaying, a spiritual transformation takes place.

It is also a communal process, and the families of the deceased become critical players in the rituals that allow this transition to take place. It is a moment of release, both chemical and emotional. As the body is gradually absorbed by flames, heat, light, sound, and gases are released back into the atmosphere and an outpour of mourning and love is generated from those witnessing and participating in the service. In metropolitan areas however, electric cremations began to emerge as an alternative to the open pyre in late-20th century India, although with mixed reception.5 They took up less space, were more affordable as it cut down the materials needed for the ceremony, and reduced the toxic emissions that came from large open fires. In fact, in most other places in the world open-fire cremations are no longer permitted at all. In spite of there being a large population of Hindu residents in Singapore where I grew up, the Environmental Public Health Act set out very particular regulations for crematoria in 19736 such as who could carry out the process (officers authorised by law), and how it was to be done (within a chamber powered through electricity, oil, or gas). Anyone who failed to comply with these specifications could be subject to fines of up to S$2000. Consequently, the body now usually ends up alone in its final moments and the cremation becomes a more clinical, technical procedure – an inevitable outcome as we navigate climate change and the growing scarcity of space and resources. Still, we try to maintain the shared mourning process through the rituals that follow after the burning itself. For eleven days following the cremation, the immediate family of the deceased usually sacrifices meat and eats standard meals of boiled rice and vegetables. On the 11th day, we perform a memorial ceremony called a Sradh, where, through prayers, we facilitate the soul’s release from all its mortal bindings. On the 13th day, the mourning period comes to an end and we invite our close friends and relatives for a meal where we can serve non-vegetarian food again, marking a return to ‘normal’ life.

I have lived far away from most of my family almost my whole life, and although I visited them each year and we were always close, I was not always present when someone passed. My paternal grandfather left us before I was born, before my Baba was even married. We lost my Pamma7 when I was four and a half years old. Through the years, we would inevitably hear news of more deaths over the phone, and do our best to honour each person’s funeral rites while living abroad and having to abide by the rules and routines of our daily lives. I have rarely been able to be with my family when we have had to go through moments of collective grief. I have not always maintained a vegetarian diet during the 13-day mourning period, or been able to attend a Sradh. But, we have always been able to use fire as a way of communicating with our loved ones regardless of where we are in the world. After Didun died, all of us who loved her – my parents, my aunts and uncles and cousins, me – we all framed her photograph on a dedicated shelf in our respective homes, alongside those who had passed before her like my Dadu8 and her brothers and sisters. They rest together, also sharing the space with our Gods and Goddesses embodied as photos and figurines. Everyday in our own time and across multiple continents, each of us lights a candle, holds an incense stick, and we think of them. When their ashes were released to Ganga, their bodies returned to the elements and became infused with the earth, the water, the wind, and the atmosphere around us, allowing them to be wherever we envision them. We don’t know what happens on the other side when their bodies disappear, but with our little fires, we can honour their spirits and invoke their presence. We can have conversations with them, asking them to bless us and stay with us as we go through our lives.

Ankita Mukherji is a cultural worker currently based in London, with roots in Kolkata and Singapore. Her practice spans writing, curating, and programming, and centres a slow and collaborative approach to working. Ankita has worked on artistic and curatorial projects across Singapore, Los Angeles, and London, and was recently in residence at Goldsmiths CCA as co-curator of the year-long research project Mapping Local Ecologies.

1. Didun was what I called my late grandmother, and what she called me.

2. Ammo is my mother’s cousin, but she was like a second daughter to Didun.

3. Argued by Surinder Jodhka in his essay, “Ascriptive Hierarchies: Caste and its Reproduction in Contemporary India”, from the December 2015 issue of Current Sociology.

4. IFrom a 2019 article titled “Denied access to crematorium, Dalits ‘airdrop’ dead in Tamil” by Karal-Marx, from the newspaper Times of India.

5. From another Times of India article by Abhinav Malhotra titled “No Takers for Electric Crematoriums”, written in 2015.

6. From the official Singapore Statutes Online website, Chapter 95 Section 113 of the Environmental Public Health Act – Environmental Public Health (Crematoria) Regulations.

7. Baba’s mother.

8. My grandfather.