Darjeeling is situated in the North Eastern corner of India at the slopes of the Himalaya on a height of 2124 meters. The town can only be reached by taxi or by the famous ‘Toy Train’, a very winding 60 cm. wide narrow gauge railway built in 1881 by English planters to transport their family to Siliguri to catch a train for Calcutta.
Darjeeling is also the centre of Tibetan culture. Already one hundred years ago the Dalai Lama’s studied in British schools in Darjeeling, one of a series of Hill Stations in India, used by the British to spend the hot summer’s. It’s pleasant climate invites long, relaxed walks in the foothills of the Himalaya’s. People gather on the central square covered with – Tibetan tradition- long lines of small flags, whispering prayers in the sky.
Since the Chinese invasion many Tibetans fled to the Darjeeling area. This photo series shows a Tibetan death ceremony Indian style. In Tibet death rituals are different. The dead are usually not burned, because of the lack of wood in the barren hills of Tibet. Bodies are often placed on top of rocks to be eaten by vultures. To free the soul it is -like the Hindu’s- important that the body disintegrates as soon as possible. I followed the funeral procession from the centre of Darjeeling down the hill to the crematorium: a distance of several kilometers. The Tibetan priest walks in front of the body that is carried by the sons and cousins of the deceased. The priest is symbolically connected to the dead man by a cotton thread. The procession makes a stop at a Tibetan monastery, where the monks perform a ritual farewell in the courtyard. At the bottom of the hill the body is placed on top of a pile of wood.
The cremation place was funded by the local ‘Lion’s Club’. Cotton threads are symbolically spun around the body. A small claycup with oil is placed on the mouth of the deceased and lighted. The sons walk around the body with torches and a liquid is sprinkled on the body. At last a wooden box is placed on top of the body before the fire is lighted. During the cremation the heads of the son’s are shaven bald to manifest a period of mourning. In a small temple next to the cremation place a priest performs the last rites by reading and singing prayers from a Tibetan prayerbook, accompanied by bells and small gongs.