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The burning issue of Hindu funeral pyres

Open-air funeral pyres have been at the heart of Hinduism for 4,000 years. Now a spiritual healer from Newcastle is battling at the High Court to lift the ban on outdoor cremations in Britain. Jerome Taylor reports

The single-storey council house in Gosforth, a suburb of Newcastle upon Tyne, looks just like any other prefab in the quiet cul-de-sac. Only when Davender Kumar Ghai's door bell is pressed and Sanskrit chants echo through the house are visitors made aware that this is not just a home, it is a living, breathing temple.

The 69-year-old Hindu spiritual healer has remained little known outside his band of devoted Hindu and Sikh followers. But should Mr Ghai's court action prove successful he may soon be acknowledged as the man responsible for the biggest shake-up of Britain's cremations laws in more than a century.

Mr Ghai, who was born in Uganda, will travel to the High Court next month to try to challenge a decision by Newcastle City Council denying him the right to an open-air cremation when he dies. His lawyers will argue that outdoor cremations fall outside of the 1902 Cremation Act, which regulates what goes on inside a crematorium but does not explicitly forbid outdoor burnings.

Speaking exclusively to The independent Mr Ghai, dressed in simple woollens and sitting on a throne of sculpted skulls, explained why he felt legal action is necessary. "The Hindus of Britain have never asked for anything," he said, running his hands through a thick, white beard. "But we're not asking for much, just to cremate our loved ones in the way our religion says it must be done."

In South Asia the vast majority of cremations for Hindus and Sikhs are held outdoors, often on the banks of a river that has been deemed holy. Although widely practised in the Sikh faith, outdoor cremations are not considered compulsory.

In Hinduism, however, there is more widespread agreement that the 4,000-year-old practice of open-air burning is the most spiritually appropriate way to release a soul from the body following death. Many Hindus believe that mechanical cremations lead to akal mrtyu (a bad death), where the soul is forced to mingle with other souls because it has not been able to escape.

"Open-air cremations are our birth right and our religious right," explained Mr Ghai. "The soul has to be released from the skull and allowed to go straight up into the air. Muslims and Jews have been given their own graveyards, they have been allowed to deal with their dead according to their religious needs but Hindus have been ignored." His lawyers will cite a number of precedents where outdoor cremations were either held with the support of the state or went ahead and were not prosecuted.

On a hillside outside Brighton a marble memorial stands on a spot where 53 Hindu and Sikh soldiers who died fighting in the First World War were cremated outdoors. in 1934, the Home Office helped to organise the cremation in Woking of Shumshere Jung, a member of Nepal's royal family and wife of the Nepalese ambassador at the time. Mr Ghai's lawyers believe these examples will help show the courts that a precedent exists for open-air cremations.

Should he prove successful, many of Britain's estimated one million Hindus and Sikhs would probably opt for an outdoor ceremony rather than a closed one, radically changing the way cremations are carried out in Britain.

Mr Ghai's first victory came in April last year, when Justice Collins granted him permission to seek judicial review over Newcastle City Council's refusal because the issue was of "considerable importance" to Hindus and because he believed there was a chance that the burning of dead bodies in the open air was "not necessarily unlawful".

This is not the first time that Mr Ghai and his inter-faith group, the Anglo Asian Friendship Society, has traded blows with the authorities in Newcastle. in 2006, the body of Rajpal Mehat, a 31-year-old illegal immigrant, was found in a canal outside Slough in west London. There was very little to identify the man other than a mobile phone with Mr Ghai's number in it. With his help police were able to identify the man and handed the body over to his family in India, who had been flown to the UK by the society. Unable to afford the costs of transporting the body to India, Mr Ghai decided to hold the first open-air cremation in more than 70 years on a secret location in Northumberland. "The only people left were his mother and daughter," he said. "They were deeply worried about the condition of his soul. So with the help of local Sikhs and Hindus we burned him outdoors."

Having initially given a go-ahead to the rite police ended up investigating the cremation and passed a file to the CPS; the case was dropped because it was not in the public interest.

Andrew Singh Dogan, a former barrister who acts as legal co-ordinator for the society, believes Mr Ghai's fight mirrors that of William Price, a Welshman who successfully campaigned for the legalisation of cremations at the end of the 19th century.

"it took a while for Britain to accept the idea of cremations but nowadays we live in a society where more people are cremated than buried," he said. "I think once people understand what really happens during an open-air cremation they'll realise there is nothing to fear. We will come to accept them just like we learnt to accept normal cremations. it's not like we want to put some pyre on the banks of the Tyne, we'd find a space that is wholly private and away from public eyes where people who want to grieve next to the body of their loved ones can do so."

Other supporters believe resistance to the open-air cremations is purely conceptual. "in the Abrahamic faiths fire is something you associate with hell," said Dr Anand, one of Mr Ghai's followers who recently lost his son and was deeply upset about having to cremate his body in a crematorium. "[Fire] is seen as a punishment and I think that's why many Westerners prefer not to see the actual cremation. But for us fire is something pure, it cleanses and renews. There is hardly a single Hindu ceremony that doesn't at some point use agni [sacred fire], which acts as a conduit between man and God."

One of the difficulties Mr Ghai's followers face is resistance from leaders within their own community. Sikh and Hindu faith groups have been reluctant to show their support for his legal battle. The Hindu Academy has called open-air cremations an "antiquated practice" whilst the Hindu Council has also said that it does not support outdoor pyres. Only the Hindu Forum of Britain has made statements in support of the idea. its secretary general, Ramesh Kallidai, said: "Those who wish to exercise this choice of open-air funeral pyres in order to feel that they have done their religious obligation for their parents should be allowed, provided two conditions are fulfilled: that it does not break any law in this country and that it does not endanger anybody else in the vicinity in terms of health and safety."

Mr Ghai said that enough Hindus and Sikhs in Britain believe that open-air cremations are a vital part of their religion. "I believe a person should be able to live according to their religious beliefs and that we should accommodate that as long as it does not harm others," he said. "I cannot see how open air cremations in a private place away from the public gaze could harm anyone."