A shamshan ghat or cremation ground is a platform designed for the cremation of bodies by members of the Hindu faith; Sikhs also use shamshan ghats. Typically, a shamshan ghat is located next to a river, so that the ashes can be cast out and floated away in accordance with Hindu tradition. Many major cities in India have shamshan ghats for the use of their citizens, and such structures are also located at prominent locations along major rivers, such as the Ganges.
Members of the Hindu faith have been cremating their dead for centuries, in accordance with their religious beliefs. By tradition, bodies are cremated as quickly as possible after death, typically within six hours, and they are handled only by the family of the deceased. Fire is believed to be cleansing, and it will help prepare the soul for future journeys.
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The word “ghat” means “stairs,” and it is a reference to the steps built up along river banks to make the river easier to access. A shamshan ghat is typically located at or very near such a set of stairs, and in some regions, there may be a row of such structures, allowing people to carry out multiple funerals at once. The bodies are shrouded in white and ochre cloth, decorated with flowers, and laid out on pyres of wood soaked in ghee for burning to carry out a traditional open-air cremation.
If possible, the son of the deceased lights the fire on the shamshan ghat, as a final act of love for his parent. Once the body has burned to ashes, the ashes are scattered and the family distributes alms and food to the poor before embarking on a series of mourning rituals which can last for two weeks or more.
In some regions, use of a shanshan ghat is prohibitively expensive, and Hindus may be cremated in crematoriums, or even buried. Many crematoriums which offer Hindu cremation allow family members to place a symbolic pot of ghee into the retort with the body, representing the traditional ghee used to start the fire at a riverside cremation.
Some people find the practice of riverside cremation at a shamshan ghat unpleasant or abhorrent, although when it is carried out properly, it is perfectly sanitary. For family members, it is also an important and cathartic act which allows them to honor the dead in the same way that members of their faith have done for centuries. In areas where shamshan ghats are scarce or attempts are made to ban them, activists sometimes step forward to preserve them for future generations.