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Designated as UNESCO World Heritage site, the Pashupatinath temple is one of the most celebrated pilgrimage destinations in Nepal. This enormous structure is nestled on a hillside beside the banks of the Bagmati River, which ultimately joins the holy river Ganges. The Bagmati River has highly sacred status for Hindus, and it is believed that taking a bath in Bagmati River releases one from all sins, thus the banks are lined with many bathing spots for the pilgrims.
Panoramic view of the Pashupatinath Temple
Marigold flower for sale at the entrance of the temple.
The main temple houses the sacred “linga” or holy symbol of Shiva by which only Hindu are allowed to enter. For a non-Hindu, like me, a good view of the temple can be observed from the hill which is situated on the other side of the river. The western bank of Bagmati also hosts the Panch Deval (Five temples) complex, which once was a holy shrine but now serves as a shelter for old people waiting for their demise. Apart from that, you can also look at the burning ghats (stairs where you can descend to the river) where bodies are cremated.
Ghat – viewpoint for tourist from the adjacent side of the river.
Old people waiting for their death
Panch Deval – a shelter for old people waiting for their demise.
As soon as we reached the river, a smoke of burning wood mixed with the vague odor of burnt flesh greeted us. But no matter how strong the smell was, for some enthralling reason, I gravitate towards the burning. At the ghats, I saw a young man clothed in all white and stoking the flames underneath a pile of wood and hay. Our guide informed us that the young man was the eldest son of the man being cremated, and he would continue the grieving period for the next year by wearing only white clothing.
Funeral Pyre up close
The moment the pyre ignites into flames the body is covered with a mass of wet straw which produces a cloak of white smoke. The smoke shields the body from view as the cremation process takes place. The family then wait a number of hours until the body has been completely cremated. They threw little bits of marigold petals on the fire and then retreated back into the building behind the ghats where there are rooms for the traditional Hindu mourning ceremonies. Whatever left of the body inside the orange rob was either swept towards the Bagmati River or now part of the air we breathe. Looking at the river, the water is murky and not what I would call an adequate resting place for loved ones remains.
Different sections of the river are reserved for different classes, one for the royal family, one for rich families with prestige and several others for the ‘normal’ people. The cremation places for the ‘normal’ people are located on the other side of the bridge, out of sight from the places that are used by the royals and the rich.
I had never witnessed a body being cremated before, until now. And something about it was very disturbing to me. This certainly was the most culturally jarring thing I have witnessed thus far. You can’t actually see the body burn because the wood and grass hides it, but it’s still a very disquieting just to know that under the grass and wood is a once living human being.
Also, while some people are preparing a relative on one of the plateaus along the river, only a couple of meters away, devotees are taking a ritual bath in the same holy river.
Boy fishing coins in the river after the cremation using wire with a magnet.
While in deep thoughts, our guide led us to the other side of the river. We walked around the various pagodas and little temples and up the hillside on opposite bank. We passed a series of eleven small temples of Shiva to the top of a terrace – where the holiest of the Sadhu’s resides. They are covered in a plain piece of clothing with white powder spread all over their body. These sadhus have spent most of their lives here. They live a life bereft of any luxury or pleasure. The only pleasure they know is serving the lord. These Brahmins feed their hunger by begging for alms from the temple or from the devotees.
Pashupatinath Temple complex
Pagodas around the complex
This small temple depicts a mirror image.
The majority of sadhus are very tourist friendly and eager to pose for the photos with foreigners. Just like these three, upon noticing our approach, they strike their “holier” pose! But be cautious because it is not free of charge.
Spotted this monkey near the cave where Sadhu’s live.
Temple within the complex with a lot of erotic carvings engraved throughout the wall.
As we continued to wander the temple grounds, amazed by the rituals, I started to contemplate on the notions of death & mortality and how Hindu’s view it as rebirth and not the ‘end’. But whatever your beliefs, a trip to Pashupatinath helps to dissolve cultural barriers by presenting to us the one truth that we all must inevitably experience. And here it’s presented to you right in your face, uncensored and naked.
- The ticket cost is 500 rupees (as of this writing). The ticket booth is close to the river by the main road.
- It’s about 15 minutes from Thamel in non-rush hour. Taxis will try to overcharge, set the price before getting in with a friendly bargain. Average price is about 150 to 250 rupees
- Photo credits:
- Panoramic view of the Pashupatinath Temple: Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Thapa.laxman
- Funeral Pyre, Pashupatinath Temple: Photo courtesy of flikr.com by Philip Milne
- Pashupatinath Temple complex: Photo courtesy of flikr.com by Matt Werner
Have you ever had such exposure to death and its various religious rituals? Would you visit if you get the chance to explore Kathmandu? Please leave a comment below 🙂