Death as a vocation at the busiest crematorium in Kerala

Death as a vocation at the busiest crematorium in Kerala
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First Published: Sun, Nov 29 2009. 10 04 PM IST

Consecrated ground: Cremations in progress at Ivar Madham. Ajayan/Mint
Consecrated ground: Cremations in progress at Ivar Madham. Ajayan/Mint
Updated: Sun, Nov 29 2009. 10 04 PM IST
Kochi: Korappath Ramesh makes a living from death—the ultimate recession-proof industry. But it’s more than just a job for the double postgraduate (in economics and history)— conducting cremations is a calling for the 38-year-old.
“I never thought that this would be the course of my life, my career,” says Ramesh, as he moves briskly amid the smoke billowing from more than a dozen pyres.
Ivar Madham, on the banks of the Bharathapuzha river, is Kerala’s busiest crematorium. Elsewhere, at more famous cremation sites, grieving relatives are faced with what’s tantamount to extortion. Here at Ivar Madham, located 90km from Kochi, there is none of that attempt to gouge the vulnerable.
Regarding coins, as part of the rites done for the body before cremations, offerings are made by all the relatives participating in the rites and each of them will have to place coins along with some rice and flowers on instructions of the priest.
Consecrated ground: Cremations in progress at Ivar Madham. Ajayan/Mint
The price for a cremation is Rs1,800 and there are about 60 of them per day, which translates into an annual revenue of approximately Rs4 crore. From firewood to priests to conducting the last rites, everything is organized with clockwork precision and the relatives of the deceased are spared the long waiting periods that are the norm at other cremation ghats. Ramesh will also arrange ambulances to transport dead bodies at a nominal charge and collect and keep the ashes to be picked up later.
A.R. Kurup, a civil engineer working with a construction firm at the state capital Thiruvananthapuram, travelled 300km last week to perform the last rites for his father at Ivar Madham.
“It was my father’s wish to be cremated in this holy place. We know it’s very far but there is nothing more I can do for him,” Kurup said.
Ramesh says he’s handled at least 100,000 cremations at the burning ghat at Pambady, the town in Thrissur district in central Kerala, where Ivar Madham is located. The half-acre plot abutting the river bank is owned by the Pambady panchayat, which has a one-room office at the entrance where an official keeps records and collects a fee of Rs50 per body.
While cremations at family sites are still prevalent among Hindus, who constitute around 56% of Kerala’s 32 million population, public sites run by local bodies such as panchayats and municipal corporations have also been emerging. The move has gathered pace with the breaking up of joint families into nuclear families living in apartments, the burgeoning population and land reforms that have led to the redistribution and fragmentation of large holdings, amid the state’s annual death rate of around seven per 1,000.
The sacred nature of Ivar Madham comes from being the only public cremation site in the state located on the banks of a river, apart from being linked to the Pandavas of Mahabharata.
C. Radhakrishnan, a writer and Kendra Sahitya Akademi award winner, cremated his mother at Ivar Madham two months ago. Legend has it, he says, that the Pandavas, after the battle of Kurukshetra, went to several places performing the ancestral rites for their deceased relatives. Unsuccessful in freeing the souls of the departed, they travelled south and reached Pampady, where Lord Krishna advised them to perform the last rites, which they then completed successfully.
Ramesh started keeping records in 2003, but his involvement with Ivar Madham started long before that, when he was about seven years old. During those days, only those living around Pambady brought bodies for cremation to the banks of the Bharathapuzha river.
“It used to be one or two in a week, but it’s different now. Ivar Madham is gaining prominence because of its background.” That’s a reference to the famous poets, writers and Kathakali artistes who have been cremated here. Among them are poets such as Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon, P. Kunhiraman Nair and writers such as V.K. Narayanankutty, or VKN, as he was popularly known.
“It has only been for about six years that I have been keeping track and recorded the number of bodies cremated. I was involved in this work even before that, but never looked at this job seriously,” Ramesh says.
That was before he adopted it as a vocation. Ramesh was first drawn to Ivar Madham because one of the family’s farm hands, P. Vella, was an expert at cremations and would be called whenever a body arrived at the site. Ramesh would watch him readying the pit, cutting the firewood and laying it over the body.
“It takes around half a tonne of firewood for a cremation. Three logs in a row can make the length of the pyre and another three the width. The selection of the logs is crucial,” Ramesh says. The wood has to be piled in such a manner that both the body and the wood should be reduced to ashes in 3-4 hours.
Korappath Ramesh says getting adequate firewood is a problem, a constraint that he’s tried to ease by contracting for a year’s worth of supplies. Ajayan/Mint
While his parents weren’t too happy about what they considered the boy’s unhealthy fascination, by the time he completed school, Ramesh had mastered all that was involved in the art and ritual of cremation.
In a family of brothers and sisters that took to academics and went on to government service for the most part, Ramesh used to be at the ghat when there was a funeral, skipping classes if needed.
After completing both his master’s degrees, Ramesh tried his hand at teaching at a tutorial college (local parlance for cram school) and even worked as a cleaner in a truck, travelling across the country.
All roads, however, led back to Pampady and he eventually involved himself fully in the cremation business. In 2002, he formed the Korappath Trust, under his family name, to undertake cremations. His 40 or so workers are paid around Rs300 a day and the priests earn a little more, depending on the tips offered by the relatives of the dead. Among his workers are V. Chathan, son of the old retainer Vella, and other members of his family.
Ramesh provides a service that’s comfortingly efficient at what can be a trying time.
S. Pillai, a business consultant in Ernakulam, recounts how a year ago when his mother died, someone gave him Ramesh’s phone number.
“Things became so easy. The body was taken to the ghat in Ramesh’s vehicle and all arrangements were made there. We just had to go and perform the rites,” Pillai says. “The total expense came to hardly Rs3,000, when just for cremation of my father eight years ago, I had to dole out Rs4,000.”
Ramesh says getting adequate firewood is a problem that he faces, a constraint that he’s tried to ease by contracting for a year’s worth of supplies. About Rs1,000 goes towards the wood out of the price he charges, Ramesh says.
The poor get a discount while unclaimed bodies brought by the police are cremated for free.
K. Gramaprakash, the registrar of Kerala Kalamandalam—the much-venerated university for teaching the traditional Kerala arts such as Kathakali, Mohiniyattom and Bharatanatyam, located around 25km from Pambady— recounts meeting Ramesh more than 15 years ago at the cremation of one of his relatives. He has been a regular visitor to the burning ghat since many poets, Kathakali artistes and writers have been cremated at Ivar Madham.
“For several who do not have the sufficient contacts and find it difficult to have cremations in the traditional manner, Ramesh has been a one-stop point. From cremation to collection of ashes to be immersed in the river, he arranges everything,” says Gramaprakash.
Ramesh’s cellphone rings, as it has done several times during this meeting. He jots down the name of the deceased, the age, the address and the name of the person who’s calling.
“Please ensure that you carry some coins (to be used in the rituals). No, it won’t take long. You can leave very soon and come after three days to collect the ashes.” A long pause. “Yes, I am Ramesh. I will be here.”
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First Published: Sun, Nov 29 2009. 10 04 PM IST