There’s something undeniable about the Hindu faith. Whether you believe in it or not, it is interesting to watch everything related to it, from ceremonies to festivals, to rituals and daily life. They are mostly peaceful yet cheerful, and even in moments of death, they are still colorful and hopeful.
I had already experienced the somber side of the Hindu faith once in Varanasi, the holy city where many Hindus pilgrimage to spend their last days on Earth before getting cremated at the burning ghats next to the Ganges River. As eerie and funereal as it was, it was an experience I’ll never forget.
Even though Varanasi was an interesting experience, my general taste of India and everything Hindu was quite sour, to say the least. That taste lingered for a few years, but now, I was ready to give it another try, even if not necessarily in India.
Recently, I visited Nepal for the first time with hopes of catching yet another glimpse of the Hindu culture and the beauty of it.
Nepal didn’t disappoint.
Pashupati, A National Deity
During my last day in Kathmandu, I took the morning to visit the most famous Hindu Temple in the country: Pashupatinath Temple. This temple is dedicated to Pashupati, who is an incarnation of the Hindu god Shiva as “lord of the animals.” He is revered throughout the Hindu world, but especially here in Nepal, where he is unofficially regarded as a national deity. This is the biggest Hindu Shrine of Nepal and one of four prominent Hindu temples of the Indian subcontinent. Also, it’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.
Pashupatinath is more than just a temple; it is a temple precinct – a collection of 518 temples, images, ashrams, and ghats (cremation spots) along the banks of the sacred Bagmati River.
If you ask me, from an architectural point of view, Pashupatinath has nothing too special to make it a memorable place. It is a piled up mess created with the addition of temples and shrines since the 15th century (though there’s evidence there were other temples here since the 5th century).
On the other hand, the culture, life, and even death you see there is an entirely different story. It’s still a mess, but it is an entertaining mess. A human mess. It is what makes this temple, Nepal, and the Hindu culture in it so exciting, colorful, and unique.
Throughout this photo essay, I’ll focus on my experience and the people I saw and photographed there. In my opinion, they are what make Pashupatinath, a place worth experiencing.
Even before entering the temple, you get to see a few holy men sitting outside the fences. These are the first ones to bless visitors –whether locals or tourists– if they wish to get a blessing. Of course, that blessing costs you a tip.
Crossing the gate to enter this holy space doesn’t leave behind the chaos Kathmandu is well known for. That mess spills in and settles in every corner, shrine, and path you can find. In many ways, it is cute; in other ways it is overwhelming. Goats roam and sleep in the middle of a square, cows moo as they walk past you, and people go up and down saying prayers, bringing offerings, or even carrying bodies.
One of the most important buildings there is the main golden-roofed Pashupati Mandir – a temple that can only be entered by Hindus. The area right outside it is reserved for the cremation of Brahmins, who are at the top of the Hindu caste hierarchy. Next to it is a hospice, where the devout come to spend their last days. Then, further down the river, you find more burning ghats where other castes are cremated.
Since I got there early in the morning, the life of the temple was still not in full swing. The ghats were unoccupied, the steps mostly empty, and people seemed to be in a “chill state,” sitting around as if waiting for something to happen.
For me, this was good as I could take my time to photograph the sadhus without much bother.
A sadhu is an ascetic holy man who strolls around revered Hindu temples and shrines with long, unshaven beards and dreadlocked hair. In general, they wear orange robes and are adorned with numerous metal rings & Rudraksha necklaces (the Hindu prayer beads).
But, Sadhus are not limited to this description. In general, they give up worldly pleasures and tend to live isolated, dedicating most of their time into devotion. But, those who do not live in isolation tend to be nomads and make Hindu shrines like Pashupatinath their permanent or temporary abode, hence why it’s so easy to see so many of them here.
Their religious duties include acts of self-purification, worship, the study of sacred Literature, participation in religious discourses, and the making of pilgrimages. When it comes to their integration with society, they are expected to console those in distress, preach and teach religious tenets, grant assistance to the poor, and help with the opening of schools and hospitals.
Most sadhus here are Shiva’s followers, or Shaiva Sadhus, which are well known for their exotic appearance. Many of them paint their bodies with ash from firewood – the same wood used to cremate bodies there. They believe the remains of fire gives supreme protection to their “inside and outside bodies” from the heat, cold and rain. They also believe the ash protects their bodies against evils of any sorts.
As you might have noticed, some sadhus wear a forehead marking called Tikala. It is created by the application of colored powder or sandalwood paste. They also carry a bag where they keep a conch shell to make evocative calls across the cosmic sea.
The most extreme sadhus (at least the ones I saw a Pashupatinath, as there are way more extreme than this in other parts of India) are barely dresses, are completely covered in ash, and only wear a chastity belt.
Sadhus are almost entirely dependent on the alms of others for subsistence. But, many of them also support themselves by begging, singing, serving as spiritual mentors, interpreting dreams, telling fortunes and reading palms, making amulets, tattooing, performing exorcisms, casting spells, conjuring, or selling medicinal herbs and potions.
Since Pashupatinath is a popular tourist site (due to its proximity to the airport just at the edge of the capital city), sometimes it is hard to tell which sadhu is real and which one is putting a show just for money. My general rule of thumb (which is neither scientific or 100% accurate) is that if they approached me to take a picture of them, they must be here for the money. If they were minding their own business, they might (emphasis on “might”) be real sadhus. Personally, I stayed away from most of the “gimme money” staged sadhus and (almost) only photographed the ones that looked the most authentic. Well, there were a few exceptions.
Even though female sadhus exist, called sadvis, I didn’t see any at Pashupatinath. But, I managed to see a few ladies offering prayers and amulets to locals and tourists.
As the hours passed, I could see how the activity picked up in the temple. I could now see families bringing their dead for cremation in the river banks, a ceremony called Antyesti – which means, “last sacrifice.”
As a tourist, you can see the ceremony from start to finish.
Watching the Antyesti
After a procession, the body, which is wrapped in white (red if it is a woman whose husband is still alive), is placed on the steps next to the river to be washed with the holy water of the Bagmati River. Water is put in the deceased mouth to make sure they are dead. The big toes are tied together with a string, and a Tilaka is placed on the forehead. Family and friends then carry the body to a ghat near the river. Finally, the deceased is placed on top of the pyre with feet facing south.
In the meantime, men with shaved heads except for a little tail, called sikha, get ready to perform the ritual. Each man is here with their relative or deceased. He is the eldest son, a male mourner, or a priest, and is often referred to as the lead cremator or lead mourner.
Tonsure is the act of cutting the hair or shaving the head after the death of an elder member of the family. It is an age-old Hindu custom that is still widely practiced in places like Varanasi and here in Pashupatinath, among others. Hair is considered to be an adornment; a symbol of vanity. The concept behind the shaving is that it is an offer to the gods which represents a real sacrifice of beauty, hence shaving your head shows your grief for the departed soul.
After the death of an older adult in a family, the Hindus consider the children of the family not to be egoistic but humble, devoted and submitted to nature. So they need them to give up their adornment and vanity in humiliation.
Before the cremation is about to start, the lead mourner bathes himself in the river. At this point, women take a step aside since they are not allowed to be in the cremation area while the ceremony is happening. They take shelter in a room close to the ghat from where they can see the service. In Varanasi, I was told women are not allowed there because women cry, and crying spooks the spirit. I’m not sure this is accurate, but I found it quite curious.
The lead mourner circumambulates the dry wood pyre with the body, says a eulogy or recites a hymn, places sesame seeds or rice in the dead person’s mouth, and sprinkles the body and the pyre with ghee (clarified butter). Then he draws three lines signifying Yama (deity of the dead), Kala (time, deity of cremation) and the dead.
Before lighting the pyre, an earthen pot is filled with water, and the lead mourner circles the body with it. He then lobbies the pot over his shoulder, so it breaks near the head. Then, the fire is set on the deceased’s mouth, and the body is then covered with wet straw grass to control the spread of the fire. Once the pyre is ablaze, the lead mourner and the closest relatives may circumambulate the burning pyre one or more times.
The lead cremator concludes the ceremony by doing a kapala kriya, or the ritual of piercing the burning skull with a stave (bamboo fire poker) to make a hole or break it, to release the spirit. While I saw this happen in Varanasi, I didn’t get to see it at Pashupatinath. Maybe they performed it after I left, but apparently, someone told me as I watched the ritual that they don’t do the kapala kriya here.
Finally, the ash from the cremation is later consecrated to the nearest river or sea.
Even though I’ve described this process here, the details of the Antyesti ceremony depend on the region, caste, gender, and age of the dead.
Life, Monkeys, and More…
I don’t know if it is the fact that death is so public and open here in Nepal, but I was surprised to see how solemn and calm it all seemed to be. It wasn’t just the ceremony, but also the family members. They all looked as if this was just one more goodbye or as if they knew there’s more to life than this. After watching most of the ceremony, it was almost time for me to say goodbye to Pashupatinath, and Nepal in general, so I made my way through the rest of the temple, where life went on as if no grief were happening just a stone throw away.
After watching most of the ceremony, it was almost time for me to say goodbye to Pashupatinath, and Nepal in general, so I made my way through the rest of the temple, where life went on as if no grief were happening just a stone throw away.
Kids played football, monkeys stole food, and sellers offered their best souvenirs, offerings, and other random things. Pashupatinath is like a microcosm where life and death happen at the same time and where chaos and peacefulness coexist.