To Die in Kathmandu
Former National Geographic Intern Tala Katner sends us an update from her travels on the other side of the world. This time, she comes face-to-face with burial rituals in Kathmandu.
It was supposed to be another normal day of sightseeing in Kathmandu with our guide, Gelu. All I knew about the Pashupatinath temple is that it is considered to be one of the most holy Hindu temples on the subcontinent. Non-Hindus are not allowed to enter the temple, but I caught a glimpse of the enormous gold statue of Shiva’s bull inside as I walked around to the back and stood at the banks of the Bagmati river.
There were about two or three small fires raging when we arrived, each on its own concrete platform at the foot of the river. I stood over one of the fires and watched it burn while I waited for Gelu to catch up. I brushed off some fallen ash, wondering if they were burning trash.
Gelu came up next to me and watched the fire for a while in silence. Finally Gelu said that the Bagmati is considered to be a very holy river that eventually flows into the Ganges, which is why cremations are performed there. Wondering if I misunderstood his English, I asked what he meant. Gelu looked at me and pointed at a yellowish hand sticking out of the fire that I hadn’t even noticed. I refocused, took a step back out of the smoke and looked down at what I now realized where cremation ghats, each one with a burning corpse on it. I immediately turned around and hurried down the steps and away from the body. I stopped. I gathered my courage and returned for another look and could not believe it.
Just a little ways downstream, men sifted through the water with pans looking for any gold teeth or jewelry of the dead. Others seemed to be washing themselves as well as clothes a bit further down.
Across a small bridge upstream, some bodies had just been brought out and a ceremony began. We watched from the opposite side of the river this time. They dipped the feet of the deceased in the river and washed them, said some words as they carried the body around in circles, laid it with some flowers on the ghat then lit a fire in the mouth. One woman was crying loudly. The bodies, death itself, and the sight of complete despair were all out in the open for everyone to see and forced you to ponder your own human mortality. It took days for me to get the images out of my head and to get rid of the weird feeling it all gave me.
Adding to the foreign tone of the experience were the sadhus who dot the temple with their colorful clothing and brightly painted faces. These holy men that live on the outskirts of society separate themselves from all material possessions and commit themselves to focusing on their spiritual practice…and they happily pose for pictures for a small fee. Pashupatinath is truly a sight not to be missed.
Photos: Tala Katner
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