By the banks of the BagmatiThe premises of the Pashupatinath Temple had never been as enchanting as it was that day. Flower sellers had already spread their stalls with offerings and oblations that were been neatly packed into traditional leaf plates. They were constantly inviting each visitor to take one before heading into the temple. The ringing of bells, chanting of devotees and bustle of the market, all filled the morning with a palpably religious feeling. Amid these vibrant scenes, a guide was leading a group of tourists towards the banks of the Bagmati River. His sun-tanned face had sharp, peircing eyes. His firm gait and gestures seemed assured, as he addressed his guests in the most polite of tones.
The premises of the Pashupatinath Temple had never been as enchanting as it was that day. Flower sellers had already spread their stalls with offerings and oblations that were been neatly packed into traditional leaf plates. They were constantly inviting each visitor to take one before heading into the temple. The ringing of bells, chanting of devotees and bustle of the market, all filled the morning with a palpably religious feeling. Amid these vibrant scenes, a guide was leading a group of tourists towards the banks of the Bagmati River. His sun-tanned face had sharp, peircing eyes. His firm gait and gestures seemed assured, as he addressed his guests in the most polite of tones.
The Bagmati that flows along the temple, has for centuries been a constant witness to the sounds of mourning for along the banks of the river is where bodies are burnt. Even as the Bagmati turned black and slimy with pollution, she remains the final consoler of the bereft, embracing the dead, regardless of who they had been in life, in her ceaseless flow and her benign indifference. Though now the ceaseless river has been stopped with sludge, her presence is and has always been integral to life in the valley. The ornaments and jewels adorning the dead are thrown into the river by mourners. But they never get to flow too far, for downstream, desperate gold hunters operate in teams to pick out the bounty.
Ashen Sadhus lounging by the river banks are a matter of surprise to many foreigners. Tourists with heavy, expensive cameras hung around their necks tend to be busy capturing pictures of the death rites being performed by these banks. The tourist guides lead their guests past the haggling hawkers and vendors narratting stories of Lord Shiva and Parvati, who enjoyed their honeymoon period disguised as deer in the Sleshmantak forest, north east of the river. Pashupati is a strange confluence of historical myths and the realities of contemporary life.
Our guide who was leading a group of tourists arrived at the eastern banks of the river. He briefed his guests about their itinerary and reminded them that they had thirty minutes to explore the premises before leaving for Patan Durbar square. Just like every other day, this morning, he had rehearsed his pre-departure and on-the-spot briefings standing in front of a mirror. His five-year-old daughter had abandoned her doll-play to utter every other statement after him. He had to plead to his wife in the kitchen to take away the little nuisance.
“You know, one needs to be a consummate professional in this job, take her with you. She is teasing me.” He winked at her.
“Don’t you think it is too boring to repeat the same stuff over and over again for all groups?”
He prided himself in saying nothing to such questions.
Once his wife had whisked the child away, he bolted the bedroom door. Then putting on a smart, well-ironed outfit, he began rehearsing the briefings one more time. All the while, his heart spoke to him, asking him numerous questions. He admitted to himself how at the Pashupatinath premises, the funeral rites had always been his selling point. He felt guilty of how little he informed his guests about the history and architecture of the temple. At times he had wanted to narrate the story of Sultan Samsuddin Iliad from Bengal, one of the temple’s most infamous visitors. On a cold morning, sometime in the 14th century, Samsuddin Iliad came to Pashupatinath after conquering the valley. The sultan destroyed many temples during his sojourn. At Pashupatinath, he cut down the Shivalingum into three pieces. While the shivalingum was replaced, you could still see the headless idols that are said to be remnants of this time. But our guide could never bring himself to tell these tales to his guests. He thought they would naturally ask counter questions that he had no answer for. If he were to tell them of Samsuddin Iliad, he would then have to answer questions like “How many days did the Sultan and his army stay in the Valley?” How would he know? History in this land was always opaque at best.
So, he just focused on the death rites instead. Guests were keener to know why a man circumambulated the pyre three times anyways. And then he would paint in their minds the image of Yama, the Hindu god of death. He never forgot to inform them of how Hindus regard Agni, the fire, as a divine messenger who carries the departed soul, like a message, to the gods.
He liked how the tourists gazed at the Brahmanaal where dead bodies were laid with head facing the Pashupatinath and the legs half immersed in the Bagmati. Sometimes he would intentionally hold them in suspense, pausing for effect. A curious tourist would eventually ask, “What happens then?” and like clockwork he would answer with his refined and rehearsed statements.
Our hero, the guide, would cash in on the tourists’ interests and tried his best to amplify their curiosity. “The libation offered to the Shivalingum in the temple trickled into the Brahmanaal and onto the head of the dead, absolving him of his sins.” He loved the way they craned their necks to look at the Brahmanaal for minutes after he said that. He took pride in this ability of his to say the right words at the right time. Before dropping the group back to their hotels, he was always happy to lead them to shops that sold masks, rudrakshya, thankas and other souvenirs. With him accompanying the tourists, the sellers dared not hike the prices too unreasonably, but always kept aside a small commission. Later he would quietly go to the shops and collect his envelopes. These commissions put bread on his table, but he always made it a point to remind the vendors to be polite in their behaviour and reasonable with their prices. He took pride in this professionalism of his.
Guided by these thoughts he stopped for a moment to comb his hair. He could hear his daughter quarrelling with her poor mother in the kitchen. The graying hair in the mirror made him think of his youth in his village. He sighed as he remembered his parents. It had been seven years since he’d been there. His inter-caste marriage with a lower-caste girl had wreaked havoc in his conservative family and provided lasting fodder for his nosy neighbours who seemed to live off gossip.
Rivers change courses with time but relationships seldom do. As more time passed, the rift between his family, particularly his stern and stoic father, widened ever more. He had wanted to attend his little sister’s wedding, but his message was never answered. Once you are an outcast, there is never going back.
On this day, he was leading a very big group and it was essential that he was at his best. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he began, “You are in a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of the most holy Hindu spaces around the world. The sights that you see today will undoubtedly be new, even otherworldly, but do not take photographs in such a way that you offend the people who are cremating their dead.”
Smoke whirled around the temple premises. The guide showed to his guests a procession of women and men, some of who were beating their chests and weeping loudly. He turned towards the group with his back to the burning pyres and began to elaborate on the death rites. A leisurely crowd of onlookers gathered around them. He knew how the local guides envied his guiding acumen and also the class of tourists he toured around with.
He continued, “Death is the ultimate truth of life and Hindus take this as a new journey of the soul. People who grieve over death are innocent because the body is just a vessel that the soul changes. The eldest son in the family will always offer the fire to their parents.”
He turned to the pyres to show them how sons offered the funeral fire to their parents. He pointed to the nearest pyre, but contrary to what he had just said, a girl in a pale white sari was holding a fiery log as she went around the pyre thrice.
This was unexpected but he was an experienced guide. He instantly informed them—“But sometimes you see… if there is no son in the family, only then can daughters or close female relatives offer…”
His heart told him to pause.
His brain replayed the hazy image of the girl he had just seen and he whirled around towards the pyre again. The face of the girl was familiar. Faces of the people attending the funeral were familiar. Could it really be…?
His throat ran dry. He could not believe his ears when she screamed “Babaa…Babaa, my dear father, you have left us alone”.
Then everything faded to black. All he could hear now was the cawing of crows that rang so heavily.