Two Sadhus

SYNOPSIS:  About the Siva Temple Pashupatinath, a lively puja session of love and devotion, some religious “weirdos”, and the ghats, where Hindus cremate their dead.  A photo essay of the cremation ceremony (from start to finish) and the puja session (start to finish).  Keep scrolling down, images embedded.

The entrance fee to the Siva Temple Pashupatinath for foreigners was steep ($10; locals are free), and I had to think of Patam, who may not make as much as this in a whole day of work, but had to pay rent and feed his family nonetheless.  I was particularly disappointed, when I realized that despite this price, the two main temples on the grounds were off limit to foreigners!

But I reconciled quickly.  This was an amazing place!

The Pashupatinath easily qualifies as one of the most important Hindu Temples in all of Nepal, and the ghats, the riverbank at which the dead are cremated, is second only to Varanasi, in India and the ghats at the Ganges River.  The temple is made up of hundreds of shrines saddling a mountain that is embraced by two strands of the Bagmati River.  According to a local the many small shrines dedicated to Siva were erected over time when priests in residence died.   Once again, there are legends about the origin of the temple, but a small shrine seems to go back as far as the 4th century BC.  Judging by a giant Nandi Bull in the courtyard of the main temple, it promises to be quite spectacular on the inside.  But I would not know. 

At all times, the temple area is filled with people.  Some wooded parts serve young couples as backdrop for a date, some small temples are the hangout of saddhus, and aside from casual visitors and vendors, beggars abound.  Saddhus by definition are holy men supposedly seeking enlightenment, and who are able to heal.  I have a somewhat dark view of these people who sit here, waiting for foreigners who want to take their picture, and demanding a handsome sum for the favor… 

Altogether, I spent over 5 hours at the temple, watching a funeral from the arrival of the body until his ashes were swept into the river.  From the opposite bank of the river, I observed the entire ritual and yes, I photographed quite a bit.  Opinions differ, on how tasteful that is, or if it should be done at all.  I was opposite the funeral party and at quite a distance.  I put my camera in my lap as inconspicuously as I could, and pretty much shot from the hip. I hope that I did not offend anyone.   

Hindus believe in the reincarnation of the soul.  After death, the body is considered superfluous and will be cremated.  But cremation such as this has become quite expensive and can no longer be afforded by all, even though by Western standards, the $50-100 needed for the cremation doesn’t seem that much. 

Just as the bodies were burning on one side of the river, on the other side, above me on the various terraces, people began to gather.  A band set up, loudspeakers were put into place…  a party?  How tasteless would that be, in the face of funerals on the other side? 

It was a party of sorts, but perhaps the best party to which a body could burn:  Aarti, is the daily devotional ceremony performed at the temple.  Each day, some people sponsor the ceremony who are the VIP’s of the day.  Led down to the banks of the river by one of the priests attending, they are blessed and offer small gifts such as flowers or rice, in honor of the god, to the river.

After that, the ceremony starts.  Priests open the show by blowing into three conch shells.  They perform mudras, swing incense burners and candles into the air, creating wonderful smoke patterns; they ring bells, clap, and move elegantly in strictly choreographed patterns — nothing short of any good show.  The band plays hypnotically repetitive and catchy soundbites, and a singer recites mantras and religious texts exalting the deity.  The crowd goes along, first sitting, then standing, then clapping, and finally throwing their arms in the air, roaring! 

A few weird ones roam the area, too.  There was a bag lady who first sat on a stone outpost and later started to dance frantically to the devotional tunes.  The dogs of the temple compound seem to know her well.  As sleepy as they usually are, hardly paying attention to anyone walking by, they all swung into action and violently barked at her as she walked by;  all ten of them…  That was quite a spectacle in its own right. 

This entire experience was as foreign to a Westerner like me as could be.  It was so cool, that I might have to go back to it again; this time knowing what to expect.  I have just one word for it: