Friday, January 18: Pashupatinath, a complex of temples, statues, and pilgrims, is Nepal’s holiest Hindu pilgrimage site. Despite the many things to see in this complex, Buddhi takes me directly to the public cremation grounds along the Bagmati River, which he tells me is a tributary of the sacred Ganges in India. He also tells me it’s okay to take pictures, which I do because I find it fascinating. In Varanasi, India, it was strictly forbidden to take photos, so I see this as an opportunity. If you think it might offend your sensibilities, then I might suggest you don’t read further (or look at my pictures)!
We find a spot along the east bank of the river across from Arya Ghat, the cremation area reserved for the higher castes: for prominent politicians, minor royals, and these days, anyone else who can afford it. We stand on a stone terrace studded with 15 great shivalaya (boxy linga shelters), erected to honor women who committed sati on the pyres opposite. Sati is the now-banned practice where a widowed woman threw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.
Other onlookers are positioned on a bridge over the river.
There are two cremations in progress today. Buddhi tells me that when a Hindu dies, the body must be burned on that same day. It takes about 3 hours for a body to burn, during which time the family stands and watches respectfully. After the body burns, the ashes are thrown into the Bagmati River. Sadly, the river itself is clogged with rubbish: plastic bags and containers and every other sort of debris you can imagine. I can’t understand why there isn’t some effort by the Hindu community or by the government to keep such a holy place clean.
Both corpses are wrapped in orange-colored cloths, which Buddhi says is a spiritual color. The first body is taken down to the river by family members and the feet are washed. I can’t tell if the corpse is a man or a woman. Buddhi tells me that the feet of the corpse are washed in order to purify the body, to wash away its sins. After the feet of the first are washed, the family of the second body carries it down to the river and performs the same ritual.
After the washing rituals, the two families carry both bodies under the bridge to the cremation pyres upriver, to the Ram Ghat, which is used for cremations by all castes. These two cremations are obviously of the lower castes since the bodies are burned here.
The bodies are put on two pyres. The families use yak tails to brush away the evil spirits and then place marigold necklaces around the deceased’s necks. Then the families place brush on top of the bodies and the eldest sons walk around the bodies 7 times. Buddhi doesn’t think these two bodies are related people, as there seem to be two separate families gathered around each body and they don’t seem to mingle. We watch in silence as they start to burn the bodies, but it’s obvious it will be a slow process.
Before I came here, my friend Mona Lisa told me that when she spent 5 months living in Kathmandu, she used to come here to watch the cremations. It gave her a sense of calm to watch the way Nepalis accept and understand the cycle of life. As Westerners, we tend to treat death as something to be feared, whereas Eastern cultures see it as a part of the natural cycle. I don’t feel upset watching these cremations as, over the years, I have become more accepting, and less afraid, of death. I find other cultures’ treatment of death as interesting, something I can learn from.
Buddhi points out the tall whitewashed buildings overlooking the river as dharmsala (pilgrims’ rest houses), for Hindus who are approaching death. He likens them to what we westerners know as Hospice.
While watching, I get into a brief conversation with an American couple from Santa Fe who have a shop selling Berber carpets. They visit Morocco quite often to buy carpets for their shop. I say I love Santa Fe and think it would be a great place to live. They just finished a 10 day tour of India and four days here in Nepal. They are really ready to get home. I know how they feel, especially about India, as the three weeks I spent there in March of 2011 nearly killed me. As fascinating as it was, it was also an endurance test.
After Pashupatinath, we head back to Kathmandu Guest House, where I check my emails, rest a bit, eat my leftover Momos from lunch, and then head to the outdoor dining area for an Everest beer. I then relax and read the book I have brought along, What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt. So far, this book has been about the friendship between two men, art critic Leo and Bill, a famous artist. It also involves their wives, Lucille (Bill’s first wife), Violet (his second) and Erica (Leo’s wife) and the families’ sons: Matthew and Mark. Tonight is the first night I’ve picked up the book here in Nepal, though I was reading it for some time in Oman before I came here. I am shocked to come upon the death of Leo and Erica’s son Matthew in a freak accident at camp. It’s funny how reading a book can color your experience of a place, and I’m upset reading this turn of events in the book. Little do I know how disturbing it will become in the coming days.