KATHMANDU, Nepal – Flanked by funeral pyres flickering in the darkness, Shankar Pradhan stood barefoot on the edge of Kathmandu’s sacred Bagmati River, where the dead pulled daily from the city’s ruins have been brought nonstop since a massive earthquake shook this impoverished mountain nation.
He doused his daughter’s feet and lips in holy water three times. He knelt down and kissed the orange shroud she was wrapped in. And then helped by grieving relatives, he spread red ochre and marigolds over the corpse, encased it in a tomb of dry wood and set it ablaze.
The ancient Hindu cremation rite is meant to purify souls for the afterlife, and this was far from the only one for Pradhan and his extended family. When the quake crumpled his brother’s four-story house into a cloud of dust Saturday, it left them with a total of 18 souls to prepare.
“I don’t know why this happened. But I don’t blame anyone. I don’t blame the government, I don’t blame the gods,” he said, struggling to fight back tears. “You can’t escape the rules of this life. None of us escape the fact that one day you’ll have to leave it.”
Pradhan’s 21-year-old daughter was one of nearly 5,000 people who perished in the worst tremor this country has seen in more than 80 years. Even in a nation where death and destruction have touched a vast area stretching from the icy peaks of Mount Everest to remote villages that rescue workers have yet to reach, the grief visited upon Pradhan’s family is overwhelming.
About 30 of his relatives had gathered in the house for a weeklong traditional Hindu prayer session he said was meant to beget peace and safety.
Prayers were supposed to begin exactly at noon Saturday, said Krishna Lal Shrestha, who was decorating a four-foot marble temple with flowers inside the house as the time approached.
At 11:56 a.m., the house began shaking violently.
“People were screaming, ”’Run! Run!'” Shrestha said. He was thrown to the ground and tried to crawl further inside the house. Instead, by an incredible stroke of luck, he was hurled through a door outside.
When he crawled away and turned back, he watched in terror as the building’s four floors collapsed one by one, crushing to death almost everyone inside.
“All I could see was a cloud of dust,” he said.
About a dozen people had managed to flee in time. Two children who were on the roofs somehow slid down the rubble, bruised but alive. The death toll could have been even worse if the quake had struck later, when more than 100 additional family members were expected.
Pradhan, 49, was working at his small shop in another part of Kathmandu and rushed home to find his distraught wife and four other children outside. He knew his fifth child was at his brother’s; phone lines were so congested he could not get through, but because most of the capital still stood he had felt there was a good chance she was OK.
On Sunday morning, Pradhan trekked one hour on foot to his brother’s house and found instead an unrecognizable mountain of rubble. Family members were clawing with bare hands through the debris. His daughter, he knew, was buried somewhere inside.
Nepalese troops and Indian emergency rescue teams showed up with jackhammers and a bulldozer that day. They recovered three bloodied corpses, but it was not until Monday that they found Pradhan’s daughter along with three others. Late that night, they were taken to the city’s Pashupatinath temple, a revered Hindu site by the Bagmati, to be cremated.
Bidhar Budathoki, a priest, said around 150 bodies were being burned daily at Pashupatinath alone. Day and night, acrid smoke fills the air, and mournful wails echo continuously through the sacred complex. As Pradhan’s family main several trips in search of wood for the cremation – the temple had run out – a woman unrelated to his family sobbed for an hour straight, comforted by two others beside her.
Bharatman Pradhan, Shankar’s older brother and the 68-year-old family patriarch, was among those wailing late Tuesday. He had collapsed against a temple wall as rites were carried out for his niece.
He’s “in a state of shock,” said Chandra Nirula, a relative who lost his own wife to the quake. “He can’t speak. He lost his wife, his elder son, his elder daughter, his sister, three sister-in-laws, his father-in-law, his mother-in-law, his granddaughter.
“It’s too much.”
Shankar Pradhan said that in Nepal, “there is a saying that if you die while in prayer, you will go straight to the gods.” But that belief seemed to give little solace.
The remains of Bharatman’s house are now being shifted to huge piles on either side of where the place it once stood. There are broken concrete slabs, broken bricks and glass, torn sheets, the sole of a shoe, a scattered deck of cards.
Indian rescue workers in orange jumpsuits clambered atop the rubble of the home, drilling through slabs of the roof. There were 11 more bodies to find.
At a nearby intersection, where a smashed car sat by the side of a dirt pathway, another team of two dozen emergency workers marched toward another ruined building. In the opposite direction, a group of men carried a stretcher on their shoulders containing another body, trailed by a long stream of sobbing mourners.
At the entrance of the neighbourhood, a seven-story apartment building had collapsed. A large teddy bear and a dusty framed glass photograph of a man and woman sat atop a pile of debris on a bridge where rescue workers looked over the scene. The words “2M” for 2 metres and an arrow were painted on a wall, indicating where another body had been found.
Most of Pradhan’s relatives are spending their days huddled together under an orange tarpaulin, too fearful to return to their own homes for fear of aftershocks. Three of them are children with bruises and bandages, each pulled from a small crevice on the second floor, which did not collapse completely.
“We have no idea where to go or what to do,” Pradhan said. “There’s help to recover the dead, but there has been no help for us, the survivors. What can our government do? They have no power, no money.”