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Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

Today we visited what many consider to be the most sacred place in Nepal, the Hindu temple of Pashupatinath.

 

I knew I would see cremations taking place and wondered how I would react.  It turns out, the cremations were the easiest aspect to absorb.

 

Kali's statue

A statue of Kali at Pashupati. Legend says that this statue is rising and when it emerges fully the universe will be destroyed and a new age will come.

 

Located about five kilometers outside of Kathmandu, we arrive by taxi, and within blocks of the temple, my senses are already overloaded with horns, bells, cows, cars, bicycles, holy men, beggars, smoke, vendors, incense, and thousands of people.

 

The Pashupati area contains Pashupatinath Temple as well as thousands of other monuments, stupas, temples, monasteries, and shrines covering an area of 652 acres (264 hectares).  Massive.  It costs foreigners 1000 rupees to enter ($10 US) this UNESCO World Heritage site.  Note that only Hindus can enter the temple itself but non-Hindus may walk in the outside areas and observe cremations.

 

Inside, we walk through a courtyard of a home for the aged founded by Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity.  Here, the elderly disabled and poor are cared for while they wait for death.  Conveniently, the building is located just steps from the Bagmati river, the largest cremation site in Nepal.  Until death, they are fed, their beds are made and their clothes are washed by the sisters.

 

Pashupati Area

A small portion of the large Pashupati Area

 

They are lucky.  With no government help in Nepal, elderly people are on their own and dependent on family to tend to their needs.  A burden for most.

 

Outside, an organization begs for blood donations needed for the many sick people that are hospitalized in the area.  I was not prepared when Krishna told me they also wanted donations of eyes and take them from the “almost dead”.  I hope he’s mistaken.  Reading about the center suggests that donations are only taken from the deceased, but like everything in Nepal, one is left to wonder.

 

The Temple itself is the most important of all temples dedicated to Shiva (Pashupati).  It’s a pilgrimage site for Hindus from all over the world.  As non-Hindus, Krishna tells us we can’t enter.

 

A peek inside the front gate reveals a magical world of gigantic statues and ornate buildings. Hundreds stream in, dressed in their best clothes.  In their hands, they carry offerings of flowers, plants, and goats.

 

The Temple is built on the bank of the sacred Bagmati River.  It is believed that if one expires with their feet in the river, they will break the endless cycle of life and death.  It is considered a spiritually purifying river which is hard to fathom when it is highly polluted with raw sewage and garbage.  With little rain in recent months, the foul water barely flows.

 

Cremation site outside Pashupatinath Temple

Cremation site outside Pashupatinath Temple

 

I was not prepared to come upon the corpses so abruptly.  At the edge of the river, there is no avoiding inhaling the thick smoke of firewood and burning bodies.  We turn our heads and cover our faces.  And cough.

 

We cross the river over a small bridge guarded by a large bull.  He stands directly in the center of the bridge.  We walk past tentatively.  I imagine that I’m a matador and this is no problem.

 

I was not prepared to see the kicking headless goat, blood pouring from its neck, a sacrifice made a million times on these grounds.  More leashed goats are walked towards the spot, unaware of their fate.

 

Monkeys are everywhere.

 

Monkeys outside Pashupatinath Temple

Monkeys outside Pashupatinath Temple

 

Watching the cremations, I am touched by the humanity and tenderness.  Family and friends gather to carry the body, wrapped in orange cloth to the river’s edge.  There they take turns washing the face and feet of the corpse with water from the river.  I see no tears.  Then the body is carried to the prepared platform and the oldest son lights the fire which must begin in the mouth.

 

In a matter of hours, the body is mostly turned to bits and the remains are deposited into the river where they will eventually flow to the sacred river Ganges.  So far from the sanitized funeral home of the West.  In my view, this is a much healthier approach which allows for death to be a part of life and not some unseen, frightening oddity.

 

This funeral tradition has been going on here for 1500 years.

 

I was not prepared to see small children, swimming in the filthy river, hoping to find an object of gold or something valuable from a freshly discarded corpse.  Desperation fuels their filthy swim.

 

Another day in Nepal that leaves more questions than answers.

 

I was not prepared.

 

Photos of the Pashupati Area and Pashupatinath Temple Entrance:

 

2 Comments

  1. really interesting and pleasant to read.

  2. Wow…I did not make it there. Intense.

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