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Peshawar's Hindus Demand A Cremation Ground

A Pakistani Hindu women celebrating a religious festival.
A Pakistani Hindu women celebrating a religious festival.
PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- The tiny Hindu and Sikh minority in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar has called on the government to build a cremation ground for their community so they can perform the last rites of their loved ones in line with their ancient traditions.

Hundreds of the city’s families, among a community of approximately 40,000, are forced to abandon the customary cremation of their dead. Instead they are compelled to bury them like the majority Muslims and minority Christians who comprise the city's estimated four million residents.

"For now we heat up a metal coin and put it on the hand of our dead to symbolically fulfill our religious obligations," Haroon Sarabdial, a Hindu community member, told Radio Mashaal. "Our religion demands that we must perform a proper antim-sanskar (eds: Hindu term for cremation rites) of our dead but we are deprived of it here in Peshawar."

For years Sarabdial's small nongovernmental organization, the Hindu All Pakistan Rights Movement, has petitioned authorities in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, to build a Shamsham Ghat, the formal term for a crematorium in Hindu tradition.

But his pleas have not been answered, leaving Peshawar's Hindus either to bury their dead or take them to a Shamsham Ghat more than a hundred kilometers east of Peshawar on the banks of the Indus River.

"Most people from our community here are extremely poor. They cannot afford to take their dead to a far away place. We need a cremation ground here," Sarabdial said.

Cremation is considered mandatory among most Hindu communities in South Asia. It is considered the last rite among 16 fundamental rituals in an individual's life. The ceremonial burning of a corpse is seen as an offering to gods and deities to purify the individual. Jainism and Sikhism also prefer cremation over burying.

"We believe that humans are made of five elements: air, water, soil, fire, and the divine light [soul]," said Ajit Singh, a Sikh community leader in Peshawar. "This is why cremation is a very important religious ritual for us because it marks the end of a life."

Sardar Suran Singh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Minority Affairs Minister, told Radio Mashaal that the government has plans to buy land near Peshawar to build a crematorium for the city's Hindus. "We will do the right thing. Justice demands that we provide them with a cremation ground."

With more than two million members, Hindus and Sikhs are the second largest religious minority after Christians in Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim country of 180 million. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Hindus and Sikh number nearly 50,000. Some of them have already left the region because of years of Taliban violence and religious persecution.