February 24, 2013
Death was in the air and in the water. Plumes of smoke were rising from several funeral pyres on the paved bank of Bagmati River, choked with litter but revered as a holy river nonetheless, that sliced through Pashupatinath, the Hindu holy of holies in Kathmandu. Curious onlookers had gathered on the opposite bank to witness and document what this temple complex was famous for: the public open-air cremation.
The last rites, overseen by a priest, were participated in by the sons of the deceased, their shiny, newly-shaven heads, an outward manifestation of purification, easily set them apart even from a distance. In this temple built in honor of Shiva, I chanced upon the ritual halfway through; the body, wholly swaddled in a saffron cloth, had been washed in the river and was now stretched out on the ghat (riverside steps), called “the stairway to heaven” by our guide, Bhuwan.
Later, the bald young men lifted the wrapped body onto a pile of wood atop a stone platform. The fire had been stoked and smoldering, at which point I turned away, not so much for failing to look death in the eye, but as an act of deference to the bereaved. As the conflagration subsided, white smoke billowed from the crackling pyre. The charred remains and ashes would then be scattered on the Bagmati to flow downstream and onward to the sacred Ganges in India.
In barely an hour, the ritual was concluded without drama. No cries of grief could be heard from the bereaved family gathered round the pyre. Fire had quietly released the soul to freedom by air and water. For Nepali Hindus, death was a fact of life as much as life, a testament to Shiva’s role as both creator and destroyer.
As the crowd dispersed, an enigmatic group of men with colorful robes, face paint, and dangling beads, stuck out like a sore thumb amid the heavy foot traffic of tourists and pilgrims. I crossed paths with a man who wore his hair in dreadlocks, his face painted ashen-white. Making eye contact gave me the chills, his dark-circled eyes piercing through mine, which I averted in surrender. He was brandishing a trident spear that he could have slain me with; instead he suddenly waved his free hand at me just as I furtively clicked my camera.
They were holy men, explained Bhuwan, called sadhu, a Hindu ascetic who had renounced the physical world. They led nomadic and solitary lives, owning only what they could carry. As followers of Shiva, the destroyer, they had abandoned families, possessions, jobs, even their own desires. They were essentially dead to the world, living only on the generosity of people, as did the deity they emulated. Subsisting on alms, they were known to pose for photos for a fee.
With Bhuwan’s go signal, I approached a sadhu ensconced at a niche with my camera. He was draped in a brilliant yellow robe; his grandfatherly white beard reached below his chest. Sitting almost motionless and emotion-less, he appeared less threatening than the sadhu with a trident I had met earlier. Bhuwan assured me a photo op was within the bounds of savoir faire so long as I donated an amount I felt comfortable to give.
Before exiting the temple complex, we took a turn to enter the Social Welfare Centre Briddhashram. The ashram, as Bhuwan explained, was a shelter for the elderly who had been abandoned or displaced. It was founded by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, an act of compassion that transcended the religious divide between Christians and Hindus.
We walked into the middle of a religious program that had the elderly residents seated on the cloistered hallway overlooking a small central courtyard with a miniature temple of Shiva, who, in this case, took on the role of a protector. Otherwise left to die in solitude or in the streets, these senior citizens had been given an extension to life in their twilight years.
A smiling old man sporting a red bonnet walked us to the parking lot and animatedly bid us goodbye as our van pulled away. That lively and happy image, framed by the van window, in this place of death left me with no sense of contradiction. There was life in death, and death in life.
Pashupatinath truly manifested Shiva’s three-fold role in the order of the Hindu universe, as represented by the sadhu‘s trident: creation, preservation, and destruction. Life and death as we knew it were mere bleeps, at times overlapping, in this cosmic cycle. The destruction of one form allowed the creation of another.
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