Life and Death and Everything in Between

Kathmandu, Nepal

February 24, 2013

Death was in the air, and in the water too, in a temple built in honor of Shiva. 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.

Holy Smokes! @ Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu
Holy Smokes! @ Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu

Pashupatinath Temple @ Kathmandu

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. 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.

Funeral Pyres Along the Bagmati River @ Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu
Preparing the Body at the Ghats (L) for the Open-Air Cremation (R) @ Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu

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.

Sitting Sadhu @ Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu
Sadhu Brandishing a Trident @ Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu

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.

TTT and a Sadhu @ Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu
Pashupati Briddhashram (Home for the Elderly) @ Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu

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.

Nepali Elderly @ Pashupati Briddhashram, Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu
Namaste! @ Pashupati Bridhhashram, Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu

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.

Bhuwan Shrestha of Authentic Adventures @ Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu

Tour or trek Nepal with Bhuwan Shrestha of Authentic Adventures.

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12 thoughts on “Life and Death and Everything in Between

  1. More than the scary stare, with all due respect to culture and religion, I also can’t imagine myself being able to stand witnessing bodies burning and adding up to water pollution. From the looks of it, it is already an overly pollutted one.

    1. Right, Mudak. There were several cremations in one day, one after another. You can imagine how much human remains/ashes are in that river by now. Perhaps that’s why it was almost stagnant. The actual cremation happens at quite a distance. You just smell burning flesh, but not see much.

    1. Thank you Lee! It is permissible to watch it from the opposite side of the river. The locals didn’t seem to mind so long as you keep a respectful distance, I guess.

  2. Glad to be led here from the comment link you left on my blog. Thanks for the visit :). Didn’t get to check out Pashupatinath when we were in Nepal. Actually we’re already there at the entrance and considering it carefully whether it’s worth the 1000 rupees entrance fee then suddenly it rained hard and so there we got our answer, hehe. So we just ate outside in this pastry shop across which also served really yummy momos and samosa.

    You really captured and conveyed the essence of the place! I missed this one, sayang!

    1. More glad to know that my piece has taken you there vicariously. I think this place reveals the soul of Nepal. The contradictions – the “mess” – of the country made sense to me in Pashupatinath. But then, those momos were worth your time too! They were the only food I enjoyed there, haha!

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