Pashupatinath is the oldest Hindu temple in Kathmandu dating back to around 400 B.C. and is located on the banks of the Bagmati River in eastern Kathmandu. As well as being the oldest Hindu temple in Kathmandu, it is also one of the most sacred and is dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. The complex is 264 hectares in total and includes 518 temples and monuments although I think it’s hard to see all of this when you visit and it certaintly didn’t feel as big as that when we were there.
Pashupatinath is often a pilgrimage site for Hindus in Nepal and India, particularly the elderly who come to spend the last few weeks of their lives here before being cremated on the banks of the Bagmati River which eventually meets the River Ganges which is the most holy river in Hinduism. It is believed that dying and being cremated at Pashupatinath means that you’ll be reincarnated as a human regardless of your past actions and the impact this has had on your karma – this is very important to Hindus.
To enter the main site costs 1000 rupees (£6.80) and instantly we were pestered to try and hire a guide for the area which I could see the advantage of but would likely cost a lot. One annoyance we had when visiting this site is that you aren’t given any form of information leaflet or guide with your admittance like we received at other sites which would have been helpful in navigating the complex and understanding its significance.
As with many places in Kathmandu, the earthquake has affected this area and there are lots of parts of the complex in scaffolding, being reconstructed or even piles of rubble. It as hard to know what we could go into and what there was to see. We made our way to the main Hindu temple which had a colourfully decorated entrance but we weren’t allowed in here as we weren’t Hindu. I have no issue with this at all as this is considered a very spiritual area for Hindus and so I think it’s completely acceptable to have their temples fully reserved for worship.
We then headed towards the river where the main rituals in Pashupatinath occur.
Here we met a student who kindly gave us information on what was happening as a family were about to start the cremation of their loved one on one of the concrete platforms along the river. The family bring out the body which is covered in a white cloth and placed on a pile of wood, straw and oil. We were told that it is crucial that the entire body is burnt so as not to trap any of the spirit from moving on to the afterlife. It was hard to know what to think when watching this process as it was a real human body lying on the pile of wood. So many people, and not just tourists, were watching the cremation ceremony with there already being a number of other cremations in progress on other concrete platforms along the river. Some tourists were even taking pictures which we didn’t do – it’s someone’s family member after all and I wouldn’t want my family member’s funeral being included in someone’s holiday snaps.
As per the ceremony, depending on who is being cremated will depend on who lights the fire to start the cremation. If it is the father then the oldest son will light the fire and if it is the mother then the youngest son lights the fire. I asked what happened if there wasn’t a son in the family and the student told us that this was very unfortunate and that another male who could be viewed as being like a son for example a nephew or grandson would light the fire instead. He told us that this can often be why a Hindu family will try again and again until they have a son for this very reason as it is considered a great misfortune for there to be no son at the funeral of the parents. The fire is lit from the mouth of the body which is seen to be a way of releasing the spirit by ending the old life in this world and beginning their new world in the next. It was very interesting to hear about the ceremonial ritual of the cremation but I wouldn’t want to have to have the responsibility of lighting the fire!
We sat across the river and watched the ceremony for a while as well as observing the people around the river who were not involved in the cremation taking place as there was a lot of people in the area. There were monkeys all around the complex and even some near to the cremation platforms and the water was black from the ashes being swept into the water and carried down river to join the Ganges.
We then continued through the site past a number of burial stupas that led you through a forest lined walkway which also had some deer! The walkway took you higher over the complex to give you views over Kathmandu although it was still hazy so we didn’t really get to see the valley mountains that surround the city.
I was surprised at how busy Pashupatinath was and how many people watched the cremations take place. In the U.K. a funeral is often a private and personal event between family and friends to say goodbye and commemorate the life of the one they have lost. This process seems to commemorate them in a different way by helping them to continue their next life in the best way possible, albeit in a much more public setting. It makes me wonder if there were other rituals or events that are held by the family and friends to say goodbye to their loved one in a more private setting and if this process helps to relieve some of the sadness they would be feeling from losing their loved one.
I’m glad we came to Pashupatinath to see the significance of this place to Hindus even if we only were able to gage the significance by chance from a student giving us information in the hope we would then pay for him to be our guide. It’s nothing like I had expected when I heard about it being a place for people to come and end their life as there was so much activity going on but I guess there is nothing to say that death has to be a quiet and sad affair particularly if you’re in a place which should help you gain the best next life you can get.
Sending Love x