Stoned Sadhus and Burning Bodies - Pashupatinath

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
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Flag of Nepal  ,
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Shortly after I arrived in Nepal, it was the Hindu festival of Shivaratri ("Night of Shiva"). This was being held at Pashupatinath, the most sacred Shiva temple in Nepal. Over a million people were expected to attend the ceremony, and on the surrounding streets it felt like it. The taxi had to drop me almost two kilometers away, as that is where the road blocks and the sheer mass of humanity began. Children got into the chaos as well, setting up road blocks with ropes to catch unwary motorcycle drivers who tried to sneak around the side alleys, demanding bribes of money or candy before letting their prey continue. I shouldered my bag and waded into the melee.

I have been in crowds before. Hell, in some places in India it felt like there were more people than land to hold them, but nothing has ever quite felt like this. At times, it felt literally like the cliché of "swimming against the tide." So many bodies were packed into the streets surrounding the temple that at times, I was simply forced to a stop, trying to pick a way through the throng. Gradually, slowly, I made my way along the Bagmati River to the temple. Close to a hundred people were crushed onto a small bridge leading across the river. The desperate, yet remarkably good humoured, attempts to squeeze across made for entertaining viewing. Deciding not to try my luck, I walked along the burning ghats to another bridge, where the police, wielding bamboo staffs, herded the people first one direction across, then another like they were unruly cattle.

Actually, within this riotous mix of humanity, there were some unruly cattle as well. While not as common as in India, cows in Nepal still have unquestioned status as unmovable objects and unstoppable forces. At one point I was trying to re-cross one of the stone bridges, when all of a sudden I heard yells and screaming laughter behind me. I assumed the police had started one of their periodic and random good natured beating of the crowds, when all of a sudden, I was practically lifted off the ground by the mass of the crowd and rushed to the end of the bridge. Nearly falling, I managed to catch my balance and turn to see what had happened. A huge bull was running and bucking his way onto the bridge, swinging his horns all around. The surge had been the people trying to do anything humanly possible to get away. Reaching the middle of the bridge, he suddenly slowed to a leisurely walk. I swear, if cattle can emote, this one was saying "Yeah, that's right. I'm the man! Screw you puny humans."

Non-Hindus are not allowed inside the temple itself, but across the Bagmati River from the temple there are a series of raised platforms carved from the hill where thousands of people sat to look over at the festivities. All around this area are small stone buildings, each containing a Shiva's lingam (a representation of Shiva's penis, the male creative force of the universe), usually nestled in a carving representing the Yoni (a Sanskrit word meaning "sacred passage", the vagina and source of the female creative force).

Pashupatinath temple, being sacred to Shiva, was also home to any number of sadhus. Sadhus are ascetics, wandering holy men who have given up on the traditional goals of society to focus on holy things, and seek god. While many are devout and true, others have used the robes or lifestyle to simply beg or engage in traditionally frowned upon behaviors such as smoking charas (hashish). The sadhus of Pashupatinath are quite famous, and know how to play to the crowds. While they may or may not be sincere in their religious devotion, there is no question they are peacocks, gladly posing in their body paint and dreadlocks to their waist - for a reasonable donation, of course.

One of the most entertaining activities of the day for the thousands of people on the hillside overlooking the temple was watching the people trying to make their way along the river to temple from up stream. As people walked along, they reached a point where there were two choices - either carefully shuffle along some pipes inches about the water, clinging to the sheer rock face as best they could, or climbing a steep flight of stairs to a house perched over the river and then climbing over the banister to try their luck at scrambling down an extremely steep, slick path to the ghat below. The audience roared and cheered with every near miss or tumble into the river. Their loudest acclaim was reserved for an old man who climbed over the banister, and slowly made his way down the steep path, slipping and sliding in his frayed loafers, but pulled off a little hop, skip, and jump at the last second that saved him from a twenty foot tumble into the river.

The Bagmati River is the equivalent to the Ganges River in India, although much smaller at this temple (and it is claimed to eventually flow into a tributary of the latter). Similar to the Ganges, it is believed that the water of the Bagmati is purifying, and can wash away the bad karma. Also similar to Varanasi, there are burning ghats along the Bagmati by the temple where the bodies of the dead are brought to be cremated. At this time of year, it was very low and filled with garbage, the water sluggishly flowing.

The bodies are brought down to the ghats on pallets by the men of the family, where they are dipped three times in the water of the river. The bodies are wrapped in colourful bunting and linen. The body was then laid on the wood of the funeral pyre. The head of the dead man was unwrapped, and then the plastic he was wrapped in was cut away so the face was clear. Oil and water were rubbed in the scalp of the dead man, which had a horrendous fresh scar running from his forehead to the back of his skull. Bunches of dried grass and sticks were then laid over top of the body, and then the men of the family walked around the deceased with torches, lighting the kindling on fire. This done, they retreated a few feet back as the body caught fire, and left the rest of the work to the low caste attendant whose job it was to deal with the remains of the dead.

The Bagmati ghats are different from the ones in Varanasi. Varanasi has the feeling of a solemn cemetery, with vultures in the guise of young men hanging around trying to bilk tourists out of money for 'donations' for buying wood for the poor and dying. The atmosphere at Pashupatinath's ghats was much difference. Respectful, somewhat solemn, but also relaxed. People milled about, and you could even take photos with no ill will. People came by and watched respectfully, but interested, as you might if seeing the funeral procession of a well loved community leader.

As I was standing a few feet from the head of the burning man, a pair of Nepalese brothers came up to me and started a conversation. They were interested in the funeral rites of Canada versus Nepal, and in a startling show of environmental awareness, stated they felt the burning of the bodies was not environmentally sound. As we chatted, my eyes were inescapably drawn to the uncovered head of the burning, deceased man. While having seen dead people, and burning ghats before, I had never been so close or seen so clearly the effects of fire on human flesh. It is difficult to explain how much this affected me. The man's face and skin seemed to shrink, and begin to, well, slide, or shrivel on his skull. The skin in the back of the skull split, and a reddish fluid began to seep out, dripping down and hissing on the embers below. Never before had the extent of fragility and impermanence of the human body been so clearly and profoundly on display to me. When the body is dead, it truly is just a mass of flesh. While not a religious person, the preciousness and significance of life, of what we call the soul or personality, or which ever term your belief system uses, became clear. Whatever it is that makes humans special, it is this. That spark of consciousness, awareness, personality - this is our essence, not the temporary containers it is housed in. Without it, we are all just bodies on a pyre, or in the ground. While we have this gift, this wondrous thing, we should cherish it as much as we can. Life is too short, too fragile to take for granted and live it accidentally. We should revel in our humanity, and squeeze every drop of life out of it, for surely a time will come that spark is extinguished.

The other people on the ghats milled about. People drifted over and away. Jokes were told, conversations held, and food was eaten. Children walked by with their parents, their eyes curious about the sight, but not shocked. Life went on. I think this is the way it should be; say respectful heart felt good byes, but let it be an affirmation of the wonderfulness of what and who we are. So, if the time comes, prop me in a corner, cremate me, whatever, but be sure to have some fun, tell some stories, eat, drink and be merry. Life, the glorious, exotic, mundane, diverse, painful, wonderful thing it is, goes on.
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Comments

travel_junkie13
travel_junkie13 on

Fantastic!
These are some great pictures!

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