“We’ve worked here so fucking long, they should give us an award, send us off with flowers and five or seven lakhs,” Gyan Bahadur Acharya told me one morning last January. We were inside the premises of the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, and Acharya, a slight, scowling man, was sitting cross-legged near the steps of the Bhasmeshwor ghat. On a row of raised stone platforms in front of us, bodies burned on wooden funeral pyres. Tending to them were cremators in white dhotis, many of them Acharya’s protégés. One lobbed packets of vegetable oil into a fire, followed by bundles of straw; another, using a long bamboo pole, gently reversed the course of a blackened foot that had drifted from the rest of the body.
Acharya, who is 68 years old, is the oldest cremator at Pashupatinath. While Hindu cremations are usually administered by a family member, the task falls here to professionals, all of whom are Brahmins, and work as contractors for the Pashupati Area Development Trust—a wealthy, politicised institution that manages the temple grounds. When Pashupatinath service staff were put on payroll several years ago, most of the ghat employees, including the 23 cremators, were overlooked. In recent years, the cremators have protested their low pay, and, more pointedly, their lack of a gratuity. In 2015, after several petitions that culminated in a strike, the PADT announced that cremators retiring after ten years of service would