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…

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

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

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

Many structures piled on

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

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

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

Close-up of the woodwork

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

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…

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

Entrance to the main temple

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

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

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

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

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

Detail on the outside walls of the main temple

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

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.

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

Cool building – like all the wood work

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

Love this type of detail

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

Friends conversing

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

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….

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

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…

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

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.

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

Finishing cleaning up the area

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

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…

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

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

 

%d bloggers like this: