Life and death on the banks of the Bagmati River

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.

The cremation ghats of Pashupatinath on the Bagmati River, Kathmandu, Nepal
The cremation ghats of Pashupatinath on the Bagmati River, Kathmandu, Nepal
Devotees begin to gather on the Bagmati ghats in anticipation of Maha Shivaratri, Pashupatinath
Devotees begin to gather on the Bagmati ghats in anticipation of Maha Shivaratri, Pashupatinath
A series of 11 small temples each housing a Shiva Lingam, Pashupatinath
A series of 11 small temples each housing a Shiva Lingam, Pashupatinath
Mr. Badal explaining the significance of the Naga in Hindu mythology, Pashupatinath
Mr. Badal explaining the significance of the Naga in Hindu mythology, Pashupatinath
Mr. Badal and the boys at Pashupatinath
Mr. Badal and the boys at Pashupatinath

Nepal, “the best country so far”

The boys declared Nepal the best country so far within an hour or two of landing in Kathmandu.  When asked to specify what made it the best country, their answers varied from the vague “I don’t know, it’s really cool” “everybody’s really open and nice and stuff” to the more specific “the tea” “the colors, sounds and smells” “the sadhus”.  I have to agree with them, but I am also hard pressed to put the “why” into words.

If only one word was allowed, it would be “texture”.  That might be a stand in word for “what a place looks like when it is extremely poor”, but there are other extremely poor parts of the world that don’t have this feel.  Nepal is an unthreatening place, even (apparently) for a nine year old boy.  It is a place of stunning natural beauty (which we’ve so far only caught a glimpse of from the plane window).  It is a place of vibrant culture, much of it intertwined with two of the most fascinating world religions: Hinduism and Buddhism.  It is a place that seems totally chaotic, but in a good, exciting and energizing way.  We’re all looking forward to our two months here.

It did not hurt the first impression of Kathmandu that we decided to stay in Bodhnath (or Boudha) on the good recommendation of our friends Kevin and Sarah.  Boudha is the home of Asia’s largest Buddhist stupa and is inhabited primarily by Tibetan refugees.  Our first afternoon in the country was spent circumambulating the Bodhnath Stupa with the maroon-robed monks and other devotees under fluttering prayer flags with the scent of yak butter candles in the air.  Among the many people who took an interest in boys (but who could not care less about the boys’ parents) were two newly minted nursed who wanted to practice their English.  The boys have enjoyed celebrity status throughout the trip, but Nepal has brought it to a new level.

Standing on the plinth of the Bodhnath Stupa, Boudha, Nepal
Standing on the plinth of the Bodhnath Stupa, Boudha, Nepal
The boys and their new friends
The boys and their new friends
Third eyes open during Maha Shivaratri, Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal
Third eyes open during Maha Shivaratri, Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal
Strolling home past hand-cranked ferris wheel, Boudha, Nepal
Strolling home past hand-cranked ferris wheel, Boudha, Nepal