Musings at dawnOf the sprinkle of temples situated on either side of the Bagmati River on the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley, Pashupatinath is the holiest of them all.
Of the sprinkle of temples situated on either side of the Bagmati River on the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley, Pashupatinath is the holiest of them all. It is where, so the legend goes, the Hindu god Shiva, also known as Pashupatinath, the lord (nath) of pashu (beasts), once lived with his consort, Parvati, disguised as deer. It’s where thousands of Shiva devotees make pilgrimage. And it’s where the dead are brought for cremation.
It is popularly believed that those who are cremated on the banks of the Bagmati River go to heaven. No wonder then that an upwards of 30 dead bodies are brought to Pashupati every day for cremation. Go to Pashupati any time of the day and you will see at least one dead body being burnt on a pyre.
It is this open air cremation and the much revered centuries-old temples, now crumbling or in ruins, that draws both devotees (from within and outside Nepal) and tourists from around the world in droves. Like tourists and pilgrims, I am drawn to Pashupati too. But unlike them, I don’t go to Pashupati because of the crematory or the temples: I have never cared to go inside the pagoda-shaped, two-storied structure, which is the main Pashupatinath Mandir; and I have always found watching the dead and the grieving family and relatives unpleasant.
Why then do I go to Pashupatinath so often? I cannot give you a clear cut answer. I go there perhaps because it provides me a space—the hustle and bustle within the premises of Pashupati notwithstanding—to meditate on many topics, including the ephemerality of things or life and death.
Whatever the reason, I find myself going to Pashupati yet again one Saturday. I cross the crossroad at Mitra Park, go past the banquet, Rudrakshya shops and the houses where modern day pandit jees have set offices to provide palm/horoscope reading services on a laptop and enter the gate that leads to the Pashupati Temple. As it is Saturday, I see more people lining the stone-paved path than usual. A piece of cloth or begging bowl placed in front of them, they look pitiful and expectant. But I go past them, without giving them nary a glance. On the left, in front of where there is a shoe stand, there is a mass of people, taking off and putting on footwear. Straight ahead, people are queuing up to enter the temple or coming out after a darshan—prasad, tika and flowers in hand. On the right, there are a few young couples feeding corn to pigeons or taking selfies.
I turn left and then right and go past more people sitting on either side of the path that leads to the Bagmati River in expectation of alms from kind souls. I cross one of the two bridges over the river, surveying pandit jees performing shraddha on pedestals just above the river or patiently waiting for clients to come to them for various pujas. Then I take the stairs that lead to the Slesmantak forest. A dog chases a couple of young monkeys around, but they leap and jump and remain well ahead of the pouncing dog. Tired of chasing or feeling humiliated, the dog slinks away.
After a few steps up the stairway, I turn left towards where fifteen temples with a Shiva lingam inside, called Pandhra Shivalaya, are located. Directly in front of me, across the Bagmati, is the main Pashupati temple with the golden
dome looming large. Inside the temple, devotees are singing bhajans, asking Shiva to take them to his heavenly abode, Kailash. Below the temple, the ghat stretches along the river.
There are people on the uppermost flight of steps, all coming to pay homage to the dead, now placed with the stretcher on the long slab of stone that descends into the river. Occasionally, a cry pierces through the crowd of huddled onlookers.
Presently, a foreigner comes and starts training her camera on the dead. After taking a few shots, she climbs down a few steps, perhaps to have a closer view of the dead body. The body is still wrapped in white cloth, except for the sunken face. I cannot make out whether the dead is a man or a woman, but can imagine the photos coming out good. She keeps taking photographs, zooming the lens in and out.
As I stand, dispassionately watching the photographer, I ask myself if it is all right for someone to take pictures of the dead, which essentially means intruding into what is a solemn, private affair. Immediately, I tell myself that it should be okay, at least in this age of social media when the first thing you do when you lose someone is post a photo of them on social media.
A little later, an elderly woman walks down the steps, shower flowers on the dead body, goes a step down and dips her fingers in the river and sprinkles the water over the dead person’s face and body. The river is shin-deep, chocolate brown and is flowing with syrupy ebb. No wonder the woman makes do with just a dip of fingers rather than a proper bath. The rest of the people do likewise.
The obeisance to the dead now over, the body is taken across the two bridges to the other cremation site, which is reserved for the commoner. From where I am standing, I can see the dead body being put on a pyre and a man lighting the pyre. As the fire engulfs the body, a wail erupts from the crowd gathered in front of the pyre. And as I lay watching the body turning into ashes, I wonder if the dead person’s soul will float away into heaven with the swirls of smoke drifting into the sky.