The Pashupatinath Temple on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu is one of the most significant temples to the Hindu god Shiva in the world (and Nepal’s most important Hindu temple), and it happened to be a twenty minute walk from our guesthouse in Boudha. It also happened to be the day before the festival of Maha Shivaratri (“Night of Lord Shiva”) when devotees of Shiva (including thousands of ash-covered Sadhus) gather by the hendreds of thousands at Pashupatinath Temple (Pashupati is one of Shiva’s incarnations as “Lord of all Animals”) to make their offerings, bathe and anoint the Shiv Linga, and smoke marijuana. We figured we had to check it out.
The temple complex was already in full swing with about 12 hours to go before the official midnight start of festivities. As we entered with the throngs we were picked up by a near-toothless gentleman named Keshab Badal who became our guide for the day. Mr. Badal was quite an asset, as it turned out, presenting to us the basics of the Hindu belief system as we sat on the banks of the Bagmati overlooking the cremation ghats of Pashupatinath. This time of year the Bagmati is reduced to a sewage and plastic filled trickle as it makes its way from from the snow-covered Himalaya down to the Ganges across the plains of India. But like the equally polluted Ganges River, the Bagmati is sacred despite its current physical state. As Mr. Badal said “science says it is toxic, but culture says it is pure.” Believers who are near death are brought to a hospice building within the temple complex on the banks of this river to be near it when they die. This allows them to drink from the river just before they die in order to purify their souls, to be washed in the river after their death, and to be cremated on the ghats of the river shortly thereafter. As we sat with Mr. Badal listening to a cogent explanation of the Hindu trinity of birth, life, and death and the main gods Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver/protector), and Shiva (the destroyer/recreator), we witnessed all of the stages of this final life ceremony as the terminally ill were brought to hospice, as the bodies of the recently deceased were washed on the banks of the river, and as the shrouded bodies were placed on prepared piles of firewood, unwrapped for their final exit (“naked in, naked out” another Badalism) and set ablaze. The smoke from the ghats filled the air as dreadlocked, loinclothed holy men wandered by.