A romantic evening at the crematorium

Apologies for the long hiatus – I have been rather busy with the actual business of living here. Since my last post we settled into our apartment and I managed to find myself a paid job. Those who know me well will understand how much of a remarkable event this is, and those who know Kathmandu may have similar feelings – through a sequence of happenstances (aided by Kelly, I must add) I met a few people working with her university who all decided that it would be a good idea if I came to work for them, helping out on the software and implementation side of data collection on mobile phones, for a public health trial in Nepal. I am now a consultant, in what exactly remains to be seen.

Anyway, back to the post. Last week Kelly and I went to Pashupatinath, a large complex of temples, for what was meant to be a a romantic evening. We neglected, however, to fully consider the fact that this was also the most sacred spot for Nepalese Hindus to be cremated. Upon arrival we skipped past the stalls selling marigolds and tikka powder to devotees, and headed straight for the temple proper. We were chatted to by a nice chap, who (it soon emerged) was giving us a free sample of his tour guiding skills. He seemed trustworthy (he had a friendly face, this is genuinely the reason I decided we should employ his services) and was soon showing us round, with a big grin at all times. First we looked over a wall to find a smoking funeral pyre, with what may or may not have been some bones on top. The river was choked with the discarded embers of the fires, chucked in after they had burnt out. There were kids in (ill advised) flip flops in the river, scraping through the mud and ash for gold teeth, jewellery and fillings. Quite a lot to take in in the first glance. Also this is a difficult place to take photos – the temples themselves are beautiful and impressive, but at the same time it was very important to not take photos of the grieving families and of the actual cremations themselves. I didn’t feel there was any reason for me to have photos of somebody else’s funeral.

The tiered roof is the temple that no non-Hindu may enter. On the right is the hospice, conveniently located near the cremation platforms.

The tiered roof is the temple that no non-Hindu may enter. On the right is the hospice, conveniently located near the cremation platforms.

So, after we accepted his services, our guide took us on a cheery tour of the temples, starting at the Kama Sutra temple, which had erotic carvings and was said to have been responsible for an explosion in population in the Kathmandu valley, as those who visited it took inspiration. Our guide told us what each temple was, showed us the 12 Shiva Lingams/Yonis, each in their own temple, gave us a brief summary of what Sadhus were and the various types (naked, entertaining, hashish-smoking and milk-drinking. I am not sure that these are four strict disciplines), and explained everything we could see.
A line of lingams

A line of lingams

There was a hospice overlooking the cremation zone, there is a sacred slab where bodies are washed prior to cremation (and upon which people from the hospice can spend their last few moments to maximise chances of reaching heaven), there are lesser and higher cremation platforms which you can access depending on caste and wealth, and there are lots of monkeys running around, feasting on the offerings of rice and fruit left for the gods. There was also a crowd of people on the east side of the river observing the cremations – it seems to be something of a spectacle to come and see, open to the public and also to people who appeared to be on dates. Contemplating ones own mortality – romantic.

r: cremations
l: crowd of people hanging out and casually watching cremations

Sunset came, casting the temples in an eerily beautiful light, and somehow softening the whole scene. I found it really interesting and, to be honest, pretty heart warming to see that death is so out in the open, even down to the faces of the dead being on show as they are put onto the pyres, as opposed to the whole process being hidden away behind layers of mortuaries, undertakers and coffins. The grief that we saw being expressed at the loss of loved ones was no more or less than that which you might encounter at home, but somehow it felt different. More…I’m not sure of the word. If you are in Nepal, I recommend you go and see it for yourself.
We picked the right time to go.

We picked the right time to go.


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