A brush with Hindu death in Nepal: Pashupatinath

On my first day in Kathmandu, I visited the Garden of Dreams.  ‘An absolute must,’ Ashok insisted, ‘if you have the time…’  So after my immersion in Kathmandu and Nepal’s history in the early part of the day, I ventured out in search of the garden AND the pizza parlour opposite, on Ashok’s recommendation.  And I did fancy pizza!!  Apart from a dismal imitation I bought in a local bakery in N (India) months ago, I had not tasted pizza for ages, certainly not since leaving the UK at the end of May.

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The Garden of Dreams was indeed rather breathtaking: a little gem hidden from the tourist masses and an unexpected oasis of calm and peace in the midst of Kathmandu’s charming chaos.  Constrained architecture blended seamlessly with dated buildings, statues and voguish plant-scapes (is this even a real word??? If not, I have coined it now!!!). After the morning’s hectic, Japanese-style sightseeing, I felt the need to rest my feet on a comfortable bench and was joined by ‘Nameless Man From England’.  We exchanged Kathmandu experiences and whereas I completed three major tourist attractions in one morning, his approach had been rather more leisurely.  He had already spent a full week in Kathmandu, exploring each and every heritage site unhurriedly, but he admitted, ‘maybe a week was too long,’ and he was ready to check out the rest of Nepal.  ‘But,’ he continued, ‘ you must visit Pashupatinath, the sacred Hindu cremation place. Interesting and very worthwhile.’  I cannot say the idea of cremation immediately grabbed me, but with still a whole day to fill in Kathmandu at the end of my trip, I made a mental note of the name and added it to my list of things left to do.   I suppose I could have spent some time shopping, but I promised faithfully not to collect more ‘things’ on my travels which then have to be stored in my son’s garage.

Having duly consulted the internet, on my return from Pokhara I asked Ashok to organise a taxi driver to take me to Pashupatinath, one of the most holy Hindu temples of Nepal, dedicated to the god Shiva.  The  ancient temple complex straddles both banks of the Bagmati River on the eastern outskirts of Kathmandu.  For centuries, this has been where many Nepalis faithful to Shiva have chosen to be cremated in the belief that they will be reborn as humans because any misdemeanours in their past life will just be brushed under the carpet.  In the final weeks of their lives, those Nepalis travel to Pashupatinath to meet their death and, after cremation, to travel their last journey carried along the waters of the sacred river, which later joins the river Ganges.

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When I arrived, hawkers were in waiting, encouraging me to buy apples or bananas, or beaded necklaces and bracelet.  At the entrance a shopkeeper displayed a rainbow array of coloured tikka paints, the paints used by husbands and wives to put marks on each other’s forehead and the paint powders used in the festival of Holi, when no one can escape being covered in paint and paint powder.

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Not being familiar with any of the Hindu death rituals, I gratefully accepted the help of a ‘guide-at-a-price-who-may-take-liberties-with-the-truth’ to explain the goings-on at the temple. As a non-Hindu, I was not welcome in the bowels of the temple but could view the cremations from the river bank on the opposite side.  I looked on, spellbound, as the funeral pyres on the ‘poor side’ billowed with smoke whilst the families stood by.  On the rich side, the dead were covered with orange sheets and men performed the necessary rites to ensure the recently departed were cleansed and bathe in the water of the holy river before their send-off.  And yes, I did see some of the dead bodies…
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Next to the river, I watched a family’s puja on the anniversary of a death of a close relative.  One of the male relatives, assisted by a priest, prepared offerings to appease the Gods and secure a safe passage for the departed into the next world.  The ‘prasad’ of food and money was set afloat on the river, where eager monkeys and children sat in waiting.  Whilst the monkeys feasted on the rice and edible treasures, the children chased the rupee notes and coins…

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The PashupatinathTemple is also a magnet for Sadhus or Hindu Holy men from all over the Indian Subcontinent and my guide expertly guided me in the direction of their abode on some steps in front of ancient shrines where they pose for photographs with eager tourists, all for a fee of course. Clearly, I could not escape and had to take part in the photo session: various poses, various combinations with ashen grey men (covered in grey ashes from cremated bodies), brown men, naked men and barely clad men with unkempt hair and straggly beards.  I allowed myself to be promised a long and happy life again (hence the red dot) for which I gave a generous (in my view….) donation. But then again, having made vows of celibacy and poverty, the Holy men depend on the charity of householders and tourists for their food whilst they spend their days meditating and contemplating in order to escape the cycle of death and rebirth.  And to be fair, their ‘accommodation’ at Pashupatinath did not exactly shout ‘comfort’.

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The rest of the tour of Pashupatinath covered many stories about the various temples, shrines and different versions of Shiva, but the one that kept cropping up was Shiva’s appearance as Lingam, Erect Phallus, and could be found all over the complex…

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Just like many of the places I visited in and around Kathmandu, the area around Pashupatinath’s one main temple was jam-packed with smaller buildings and shrines, most of which withstood the powerful April earthquake and showed only minor damage. 
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10 thoughts on “A brush with Hindu death in Nepal: Pashupatinath

    1. lievelee Post author

      It is indeed fascinating to be allowed to witness something that is actually quite an intimate ritual; especially the washing of the bodies in the river before cremation. Yes, I would recommend this as a place worth exploring when visiting Kathmandu.

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  1. Debbie L

    Very interesting. Personally, I believe in cremation, but I’d prefer our private way in the US. It’s fascinating to see how other cultures dispose of the deceased.

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    1. lievelee Post author

      Hi Debbie, thanks for visiting my blog.

      The Hindu rituals surrounding death are indeed fascinating, but not altogether that different from the West.. maybe in the West a lot of the care of the deceased is ‘outsourced’ to funeral parlours and funeral homes, whereas in the Hindu culture male relatives still play an important part in the ritual of the cremation. I suppose in the West death and grief are dealt with much more privately, but for Hindus death is not the end, but merely the start of a new journey to the next life.

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      1. Debbie L

        I never thought of that! Even more fascinating. My step dad was terminally ill so he and mom went to the funeral home to make their arrangements. They selected the more expensive home because they refrigerate the body until cremation. I never would have thought of that and I don’t care….I believe as he did, “absent in the body, present with the Lord.” But the body should be treated with respect. I guess it is the sanitation that gets to me. Yes, it’s good the body is refrigerated until the cremation takes place!
        Anyway, I love finding what we have in common more than our differences-and this is a perfect example!

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