Walking the tightrope between tradition and taboo: Gender, cemeteries and the City

“Jama Masjid, Delhi” by souravdas is marked with CC BY 2.0.

Swati Mohana Krishnan

Swati Mohana Krishnan is pursuing her PhD from the School of Development Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi. Her research work is to understand the shrinking spaces for the dead in the city of Delhi.

Places are never empty, there are no voids. A seemingly uninhabited plot of land is suffused with hidden histories, myths, legends and stories of its past selves which are shrouded and just need to be delved into. The city of Delhi has been described in terms of many epithets over the years, as a ‘city of cities’(INTACH), a ‘city of Djinns’ by William Dalrymple, a palimpsest- where the past co-exists with the present, as ‘the graveyard of many empires and the nursery of a republic’ to quote India’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru. Following the horrific Nirbhaya incident where Jyoti Singh was brutally raped and murdered in 2012, others have called it the ‘rape capital’ of the country.

Delhi is all of these things and none of them at the same time. The vastness of the city, its vibrant cultural niches and the myriad experiences of the women in this city, especially those who come here to study the city and encounter gender-based violence in the course of their work and lives, can span several volumes, both literary and aural. The stories of Delhi and from Delhi speak in several voices and tongues, sometimes intertwining and corroborating each other while at other times vociferously contradicting each other. Here is one such true story from a corner of Delhi.

Man: You will be cursed!

Me: I have taken permission to be here

Man: You will be cursed and the person who has given you permission will also be cursed!

I froze in my tracks as I heard these words. Clearly my modest clothing and demure appearance heightened by my head covered carefully with a dupatta which concealed every lock of trespassing hair, had not been enough to give me access here. I was out of place. I was in a graveyard and my transgression was that I was a woman, unaccompanied, in a qabristan (burial ground).

As the man continued to scream at me, I walked as fast as I could towards the exit. Graveyards are places of the dead, of worship, religion, remembrance, tradition, taboo, community sentiments and contestations. In places such as graveyards, tombs and gender identities are cast in stone. Despite having visited several graveyards, crematoriums, burial grounds and cemeteries over the last few years while conducting field work for my PhD, which deals with shrinking spaces for the dead in Delhi, this incident is clearly etched in my memory and engraved on the pages of my field notebook. It raises the important question on the gender of the researcher and the gendered experiences that she has to encounter while on field work.

Why study ‘dying in the city?’

For the last few years, I have been trying to understand the city of Delhi from the vantage point of its spaces for the dead. I have been asking myself and the personified city, with whom I often engage in dialogic interactions, whether it is a Necropolis or a city of the dead? This conversation about death in Delhi is lively and unpredictable. But why study death? This is a question that I have heard a million times now. And my answer is purely because it is universal. Death does not discriminate; it eventually meets every living being and then accompanies them on the final migration. However, the treatment of the dead is not equal in many ways. Some do not find any resting places at all, some are confined to the margins while others lie interred in grand tombs and memorials built on public land at a crippling expense to the state (Govindarajan, 2018).

The gendered nature of rituals attached to the death are violent and violative of the right to dignity of a woman–living or dead. Married women’s bodies are covered with a red cloth, men’s bodies are covered in white and the bodies of widows are also shrouded in white. Do they cease to be women once their spouse dies? Women are not allowed to attend funerals. If they do, they must be in white and observe proper mourning. Menstruating women are a class apart. They have to stay away from all places of the dead and are debarred from any religious function or ceremony to pray for the dead, irrespective of the fact that the woman might have lost the person she was closest to and is grief stricken. Women’s bodies are canvases, markers and sites for the enactment of age-old rituals whose significance spans the perimeters of tradition as well as taboo.

But some of these practices are also changing. Women now choose to light the funeral pyres instead of relying on an appropriate male member of the family to do so. Gender identities are cast in stone in some places such as graveyards but perhaps the etchings on the stone are changing slowly, perhaps some are fading out.

This is an unfinished story where there are no clearly defined authors or characters, the city itself is both sometimes, the city is violent/dismissive and accommodative to the woman researcher and the subject of research both. What can perhaps be distilled from it is a perspective, a perspective of a woman who is deeply enamored by the city which is her home and place of work, her ‘field’ and office, her oasis and refuge, her courtroom and archive, her world and soul.


Govindarajan, V. (2018, May 22). She was declared a convict: Jayalalithaa memorial on Chennai’s Marina beach faces legal challenge. Scroll.in


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Lefebvre, H. (1987). The everyday and everydayness (C. Levich, Trans.). Yale French Studies, 73, 7-11.

Lefebvre, H. (2006). Writings on cities (E. Kofman & E. Lebas, Trans.). United Kingdom, UK: Blackwell Publishing.