Pashupatinath Temple: A Unique Experience in Kathmandu

Visiting a new place can make us feel out of sorts.  That could be due to a number of reasons:  the climate is different, the people behave in ways different than ours, the food is different, etc.  That can be especially true when visiting a place with a different religion than the one(s) we know.  That was true when I visited Kathmandu, Nepal, which, itself, did not feel strange; it felt very comfortable there!  But I visited one place in Kathmandu that was I ill-prepared for;  I felt a lot of ambivalence about the place once I got there.  And it was not the conceptual part of the site that threw me for a loop, it was more the sensory perceptions once at the place… but, before all that…

Pashupatinath Temple

Before flying to Lukla to hike the Everest Base Camp trail, our agenda had us visiting the Pashupatinath Temple, on the banks of the Bagmati River in the east side of Kathmandu.  It was a group activity for us trekkers so I went along, eager to see more of the city and explore more of the cultural and religious aspects of Nepal.  Before getting there, we understood it was a Hindi religious site where, among other things, ritual cremations took place.  Before I get to that, a little more about the centuries-old temple…

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A bit up from cremation area is a bridge to cross into the main complex

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Many structures piled on

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Along the river bank after the bridge

Lord Pashupatinath is the national deity of Nepal and the temple is one of the most important ones in the Hindu faith.  When I speak about the temple, I actually refer to the overall complex of temples (big and small) and other religious sites around the main temple, which only people of the Hindu faith can actually enter. The complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which designates it as a place of unique importance and meaning to the world at large.  It holds many religious festivals throughout the year – it must be quite a sight!  Pashupatinath, temple, Kathmandu, Nepal, templo, Hinduismo, cremation, Asia, explore, travel, photo, architecture

Pashupatinath, temple, Kathmandu, Nepal, templo, Hinduismo, cremation, Asia, explore, travel, photo, architecture

Lattice work

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Close-up of the woodwork

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While non-Hindus cannot enter the main temple, we got close to it and got to peek through the gate.  Pashupatinath, temple, Kathmandu, Nepal, templo, Hinduismo, cremation, Asia, explore, travel, photo, architecture

The main temple is built in a pagoda style and has a gilded roof.  The area around the entrance was decorated with beautiful artwork that I am sure has a lot more meaning than I understand (it shows deities but I can’t really explain… if you, reader, know, leave a comment to educate us!).  I was left wondering if it felt more solemn once inside…

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Entrance to the main temple

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Close-up of the area above the entrance (Shiva)

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Close-up of the side of the entrance (Ganesha)

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Detail on the outside walls of the main temple

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Peeking in through the main temple gate (golden rear end of Nandi, Shiva’s bull)

The structures around the complex were not homogeneous.  The materials and colors seemed diverse, perhaps because of being built up over many centuries?  The buildings and the architectural details caught my eye (and my lens) and it was a lot to take in – it was a feast for the eyes.  I didn’t know where to focus since it was all new to me.

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Cool building – like all the wood work

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Love this type of detail

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Friends conversing

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But the thoughts about my first visuals upon entering the complex lingered with me throughout the visit despite the great things I was looking at…

Cremations at Pashupatinath

When we arrived we had entered through a gate that brought us directly face-to-face with the cremation area by the river….

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Our first sighting of the temple was the ‘ghats’ where the bodies are cremated

There were monkeys all over the place.  Not sure if they like being by the water, if they are all over, or what…

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One of the many…

In any case, the area where the cremations take place can hold several cremations at the same time on either side of the river.  The body of the departed is placed on a “platform” (or ‘ghat’) that juts out into the river a little and there the funerary pyre is set.  The side of the river close to the entrance we took is simpler whereas the opposite river bank offers more shade for the relatives and friends of the recently departed.  Behind that area there are several structures at a higher level.  We were told that if the families have come from a long way, they may stay there.  Once the ritual cremation is done, the embers are allowed to die down and the ashes (and anything else that remains) are thrown into the river with the hope it reaches the Ganges River, one of the most sacred rivers of the Hindu faith.  Relatives of the departed step into the river as part of the cremation ritual, hence the steps that form the river banks at the temple.

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Finishing cleaning up the area

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Preparing for a cremation

Experiencing the world through travel is not always easy

I knew that this was a religious practice as I had witnessed, via TV, the funerals of people like Indira Gandhi and others who were cremated in similar fashion (open-air as part of a religious ritual).  So as I entered the complex, I felt “aware.”

And then the smells generated by the cremations hit me.  To say I was unprepared for that is a massive understatement.  I had not stopped to think ahead of time about how it would feel to be physically present (not just in front of a TV or computer screen) at an open-air cremation.

We were quite far from the river’s edge when the smell reached us.  What made it uncomfortable was that it reminded me of the smell at a cookout back home but I knew this was an important religious ritual we were seeing from a distance.  It was disconcerting, feeling guilty about making that comparison mentally, about thinking that I was in person seeing something that I would never expect to see back home as an eyewitness.  As I stood there, I hesitated on taking any picture of the scene but decided to do it as it would be from a good bit of a distance away and I felt I was doing so with a respectful intent.

Looking at those photos today, all the feelings come rushing back:  my awkwardness with the moment, the sensory memories…  But, traveling is about expanding one’s understanding of the world, about learning of others’ perspectives and beliefs, and about being OK with not always being comfortable with what one comes across.  I struggle with saying I am glad I had that experience – I am not sure I can say I am “glad.”  And I will have to be OK with that.  But I am glad to have learned more about the meaning of what I witnessed to the faithful for whom this is supremely important…

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Not sure what this prayer man is called but photo highlights what this place is about

 

Making a Pilgrimage to Lourdes, France

Lourdes, France – a major Catholic pilgrimage destination – is a one-of-a-kind kind of place.  For me, that is for two good reasons:

  1. It is the site where the Virgin Mary appeared to young Bernadette, a country girl with no education but a lot of faith.
  2. My mother and sister are both named after that site, where the “Virgin of Lourdes” appeared to Bernadette.

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    The lower and upper basilicas from the Information Center

I suspect both my mom and sister have always wondered if they would ever go to that town in the foothills of the French Pyrenees.  Wouldn’t you want to go to the town where your name came from or is related to?  In their case, maybe more than just for the curiosity of being namesakes with the town but also on account of what happened there in the mid 19th century.

The apparition happened multiple times and the local clergy had initially been skeptical but, over time, became convinced of the validity of what Bernadette shared.  I will leave to other sources to explain the whole story but the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette on a grotto near the river.  Out of these events, water sprung from the site and waters of Lourdes are, to believers, holy waters.  People from all over the world come seeking healing or just a spiritual encounter.  Many drink the waters from the spring, bottle some to take home, or even immerse themselves in special pools set up near the grotto (we did all three).

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The grotto

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Fountains where bottles can be filled

When we first arrived in Lourdes from San Sebastian via Biarritz and Bayonne, I was expecting the narrow streets, crowded and me driving this larger vehicle through it all.  I knew I was near the hotel, the Grand Hotel Gallia & Londres, which I had picked due to its proximity to the Sanctuary of Lourdes to make all the walking to and fro easier for everyone, when all of a sudden I saw a parking sign for it, not where the GPS was indicating I needed to go.  Miraculously (pardon the pun), I caught a passing glimpse of the sign before I would have hit the heart of the crowded part of town!

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The back of our hotel

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Right outside of the Sanctuary – tourist shop chaos

The hotel was in the old style of a grand hotel.  It was nice enough but, unfortunately, the A/C was not working on our floor.  Hard to tell with French hotels whether they are just being stingy or whether it was true.  Certainly, at night the air cooled enough to be comfortable in the room but the noise from the street did not subside until the very wee hours of the morning – not the faithful partying, I am sure.  So that made the hotel not perfect.  But other than that, it did the job nicely enough.

We had dinner before heading in the early evening to the Sanctuary, the site with the grotto and several churches/basilicas, almost across the street from the hotel.  We knew there would be a torchlight procession at 9PM where the Holy Rosary is recited but we did not quite know the ‘mechanics’ of it.  So we sat on a bench to wait and what we missed was that we were supposed to walk towards the grotto and join the procession line.  But we witnessed the procession which brought a statue of the Virgin to the front steps of the Rosary Basilica (the lower one; the upper one that one sees more evidently is the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, or the Upper Basilica).  In the meantime, we did walk to the grotto for our first visit to the spot where the apparition took place.  The line was very short and it was always moving so it did not take long before we got to visit and say our prayers and intentions…

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The front of the lower basilica during the torchlight procession

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Grotto at night

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Statue of the Virgin carried during the torchlight procession

The next day, we had found out at the information center (located by one of the entrances to the complex) that there would be a Spanish Mass at 11 AM down the Esplanade at St. Joseph’s Chapel.  After attending that Mass we went into the underground Basilica of St. Pius X, a massive modern space completed in 1958 (it can hold 25,000 folk!).  I am not sure it is the type of church I feel most spiritual in but I suppose there is a need for it in this site?

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Information Center

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The Basilica of St. Pius X

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The lower and upper basilicas from across the Esplanade

We finished our exploring by visiting the Rosary Basilica and the Upper Basilica.  After that we went to the baths (or piscines) where one can immerse him- or herself in the holy spring waters.  One waits in an outdoor area (with plenty of seats!) and then eventually one gets called in to a vestibule awaiting the assignment of to one of the pools, where one will undress and be wrapped as preparation to walking into the pool.  The water was absolutely frigid so the miracle may be that I was able to walk out of the pool and that my legs regained normal body temperature!  All joking aside, it was a very moving experience and we are grateful to the kind and helpful volunteers who give of themselves to help pilgrims…

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Detail of the facade of the lower basilica

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The inside of the lower basilica

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Looking towards the Esplanade from the Upper Basilica

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Entrance to the baths or piscines

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Amazing to see all the people helping the sick, or malade, move around

Witnessing so many people wearing their faith ‘on their sleeve’ was powerful.  Our trip was actually not just due to curiosity, or even strictly to see a place where an important event in our faith took place.  Our trip was a real pilgrimage of thanksgiving and prayer for continued health in my family after a year-and-a-half of dealing with cancer…  The grotto and the holy waters of Lourdes carry a very special meaning for us, even more now that we have been so fortunate to visit this place…

 


Pin to your travel board!!

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Swayambhunath – A Special Place in Kathmandu

Kathmandu is an amazing city.  Colorful and busy.  Yet, somehow spirituality seems to permeate it.  Among the many places that back that impression is the Swayambhunath site – also just known as the monkey site.  I don’t know that it is technically a temple but it is certainly an important Buddhist religious site.  Claims about when it was first established range from the 6th century A.D. to the 3rd B.C.!  Let’s settle on “it’s old.”

Beauty everywhere

The site’s shrines and other structures dot the hillside and are packed at the hilltop.  I wish I had had a guide to make sure I understood the meaning of the different types of structures and figures sculpted in them.  Here is a glimpse of some of the sights on the site.Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung GalaxySwayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung Galaxy Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung GalaxySwayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung Galaxy Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung Galaxy

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Prayer wheels

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The earthquake changed it

The many shrines and temple-like structures included more than you can see today.  Sadly, the earthquake of April 2015 knocked down one of the two towers, and severely damaged the other one and many other structures.  Yet, it seems many survived OK which is a blessing at such an important site.

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The surviving tower

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The base of the collapsed tower

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Damage from the earthquake

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Serious crack under the large stoupa with prayer wheels around it

Eye gotta stupa for you…

More impressive than anything else on the site is the stupa with the painted eyes on it.  They follow you around…  They are Buddha’s eyes and eyebrows…  It is said it is over 1,500 years old though it has been renovated many times in its long life.

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The eyes on the golden tower in the stoupa

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See? They are watching you…

Monkeys R Us

But, the way I heard of this place for the first time was because of the monkeys.  The many monkeys that reside on the place.  Big and small, they are everywhere.  Yet, much as they must be used to people, they were not climbing over folks.  They were very well-behaved!

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Baby monkeys – a fertile place!

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Curious monkeys

Getting to view Kathmandu from up high

The site is located on a tall hill that offers great views of Kathmandu.  The main approach is a rather long and steep set of steps on the east side of the hill.  LOOOONG! (365 steps to be more precise) But, unbeknownst to me, our driver was taking us to a point that maybe was 2/3 of the way around the back so our climb was not as severe.  Now, now, don’t be poking fun.  I had just spent 5 days hiking on the Everest Base Camp trail so saving steps was relief of sorts…

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Sweeping view of Kathmandu – and a passing bird!

I must say that though at first visiting a place full of monkeys did not thrill me, the place’s charm and the faith it represents was captivating.   I enjoyed spending time there and would recommend taking the time to connect with this bit of Kathmandu!

 

 

 

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