Category Archives: Shiva

On The 5th and last day of Teej, women crowd a temple's grounds to offer Puja. Bhaisepati, Lalitpur © Donatella Lorch

Where ancient rituals rule in modern times — ‘Tis always the season!

     Growing up in New York, I rarely associated religious festivals with a national or even a city holiday, though occasionally alternate side of the street parking was suspended – to my father’s delight.

     Half way around the world, Nepal has taken the idea of religious festivities to another level. Beginning in late August and continuing until the end of October, religious festivals follow each other like tumbling dominoes, occasionally bridged by government holidays. The festivals can last a day or a more than a week. Parking, though, is not an issue in Kathmandu, a capital where parallel parking has yet to be discovered and the rule on the hair-raising narrow roads seems to be: “Never give way.”

Fires are often part of religious rituals as these impromptu ones along a procession route. © Donatella Lorch

Fires are often part of religious rituals as these impromptu ones along a procession route. © Donatella Lorch

It is a season when the complexities of Nepali society seem to surf above the capital’s physical chaos, pollution, political disorder and venality. The ties to yore, to myth, to custom and to religion may be a matter of worship or just a question of habit or a mere acquiescence to an insistent mother-in-law. In any case, Nepal’s festivals are not a matter that can be ignored.

     Depending on how you look at it, life in Kathmandu either slows down as stores and offices close or it hums with an entirely different undercurrent. There are different colors, smells, noises. Traffic jams change locations. In Nepal, the kaleidoscope of Newar, Tamang, Chhetri, Brahmin and other holy days challenge the most ardent ritualists, who consult multiple types of calendars not only to stay connected with the outside world but also to follow the local customs. Most of the calendars are based on a lunar cycle, so every year, schools, offices and government nimbly have to readjust their schedules. To keep everyone on their toes, some holidays rely on astrologers. 

The land where Puja is intertwined in every aspect of daily life.©Donatella Lorch

In Nepal, Puja is intertwined in every aspect of daily life.©Donatella Lorch

     This year, the season began on August 10th, with Janai Purnima, when Brahmins and Chhetri communities go visit their guru to have their sacred thread changed. For good measure, there are those who add on a dip in a local river. Just a day later, on the 11th is Gaijatra or Cow Festival, a huge event in the Kathmandu Valley, when you decorate your cow or one of the many stray bovines in your neighborhood and join the dancing, singing parades. Some choose to wear cow head-gear. It is meant to pave the way towards heaven for any relative that has died that year. As the end of the month nears, there is Father’s day and close by the day when Hindu priests give (or more precisely sell) the faithful some ‘Kush grass’ so that Vishnu will live in their home for the coming year.

On Teej, women queue on long lines to worship at temples all over the Kathmandu Valley and beyond. ©Donatella Lorch

On Teej, women queue on long lines to worship at temples all over the Kathmandu Valley and beyond. ©Donatella Lorch

Some festivals are all-inclusive, others pick their ethnic group, pointing in numbers to the changing ethnic powers in the Kathmandu Valley. Take Teej, which is followed by Chhetris and Brahmins but not by the Newars, the area’s original inhabitants. If color is a sign, then the Newars are far from being the majority they once were.

  For the five days of Teej, observant women wear red saris, turning the entire valley into a red sea. The government closes down the roads in one of the busiest sections of Kathmandu so that thousands of red clad women can worship at Pashupatinath, one of the holiest Shiva shrines in the world. Red saris are scrunched against the windows of overloaded public buses or billow elegantly in an Isadora Duncan sort of way on the back of motorcycles. Teej is billed as a woman’s festival – but it is really about the men, for it is a time when a woman either prays for the well-being of her husband or, if she not already married, for a husband-to-be.

     If a woman is very traditional, she will fast and she will also bathe her husband’s legs and drink the run-off water. This has some of my women friends in the States decrying marital abuse. But watching these red saris dancing in front of temples, standing and chattering on endless lines with their girlfriends and daughters, puja (offerings) and smart phones in hand, all bedecked in traditional gold jewelry, it is clear that, for them, Teej is not only about bonding but also about a great escape from endless daily chores and demanding husbands. It’s a time of year when gold prices in Kathmandu skyrocket. I’m inclined to believe that if you acquire new jewelry and a new sari, and spend five days with your friends, worshipping a husband is a fair exchange.

Women in traditional "wedding day" saris are scrunched on buses returning from worshipping at Pashupatinath, a World Heritage Site. ©Donatella Lorch

Women in traditional “wedding day” saris are scrunched on buses returning from worshipping at Pashupatinath, one of the world’s holiest Shiva shrines. ©Donatella Lorch

     The festivities don’t end with Teej. A short break afterwards, there is an eight-day Indra festival in Kathmandu. More masked dancers and drums in procession with the Kumari Devi, or ‘Living Goddess,’ blocking more traffic. And then Nepal’s most universal and longest festival – Dashain – begins and continues for about 15 days. This year it falls at the very end of September. On the surface Dashain is a celebration of the victory of gods and goddesses over demons or of good over evil, but between the prayers, it is mostly a celebration of family and community. Flights into Nepal have already been booked for weeks now. Nepali migrant workers in the Middle East borrow money to return home, others fly in from the U.S. and Europe. Kathmandu empties out as families return to their ancestral villages spending long hours on buses and often walking the last bit to grandma’s old mud- wattle or stone house. Aside from hotels and a few restaurants in the tourist neighborhoods, Kathmandu shuts down. The sky is a jumble of kites maneuvred by young kids on rooftops. The chaotic traffic jams and the smog melt away.

     This is a time of sacrifice – animal sacrifice that is. My friend Keshav, has been fattening his mutton for three years just for this year’s holiday. On October 1st this year, the day will begin with the army’s ritual throat-slitting of scores of buffaloes and then everyone has the go ahead to kill and feast on their own buffalo or goats and the drain-less roads will be covered in blood. Even if you live in an apartment, there is pressure to buy and butcher your own animal.

Nightime poetry during Tihar in Patan's old city. ©Donatella Lorch

Nightime poetry during Tihar in Patan’s old city. ©Donatella Lorch

 My favorite festival is none of these, but comes a bit later. After the dancing, chanting, techno-filled boom-blasted nights of Teej, just passed, I look forward to Tihar, the festival of lights, at the end of October. If poetry can transcend words, it is found at night in Patan’s old city. Every household creates on their road-side stoop mandalas of rice and painted flour lit by butter lamps. The narrow roads cornered by ancient temples are full of families strolling or going to prayer in the flittering, smoky lamplight. If there are no power cuts (and the government goes out of its way to avoid them during Tihar), cascades of Christmas lights decorate the taller buildings. Of course, modern times intrude. On Tihar, it is traditionally auspicious to buy metal; these days that means buying electronics, and so phones, televisions and stereos sell briskly.

I too turned red - briefly. My dog, Biko, was just a prop. ©Bimla Shiwakoti

I too turned red – briefly. My dog, Biko, was just a prop. ©Bimla Shiwakoti

Luckily, when it is all over, I won’t suffer from withdrawal. There are of course many more festivals during the year but in the meantime I still have my neighborhood Hindu priest to remind me I live in Kathmandu. Without fail, 365 days a year, he starts clanking his bell to wake Shiva at 5:15AM. I lie in bed, counting the 25 to 31 reverberating sharp and hard rings occasionally enhanced with some megaphone chants. When I moved here a year ago, the head-thudding noise forced me up and out of bed but these days, it has a soothing quality, alternating with the baying packs of neighborhood stray dogs and the coo-ing pigeons on my windowsill. I roll over, a smile on my face, knowing that the ancient is still there to guard the new day.

Dhaka to Kathmandu — A different commute

I dread Fridays. The anxiety can start the day before, and then the mornings find me pacing and monitoring the Internet, the local weather channel, a friend’s broadband radio and WhatsApp. On Fridays, my husband is scheduled to come back to Kathmandu from Bangladesh. It’s not that I don’t want to see him. Spending an occasional weekend together is a welcome treat. The problem is getting him here. Every week, what is in fact just an hour and ten-minute flight, a Washington D.C. to New York hop, can evolve into a several day ordeal, if it happens at all.

Landing in Kathmandu, a plane crests the hilltops and dives down fast. © Donatella Lorch

Landing in Kathmandu, a plane crests the hilltops and dives down fast. © Donatella Lorch

Kathmandu is a city of 3.5 million, and though air traffic cannot be compared to Delhi or Bangkok, it is not a backwater. Scores of international airlines come everyday, with heavy traffic from India, several Chinese cities, non-stop from as far as Korea and Turkey. Nepal, like Bangladesh, is a major supplier of migrant labor to the Middle East and Malaysia, and their airplanes land here as often as four times a day. If John were commuting from India, he’d have a vast array of airlines and departure times from which to choose.

The airstrip at Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, Nepal

The airstrip at Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, Nepal

But my husband is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital of 12 million. It used to have two airlines plying the Kathmandu route every day but a few months ago, without giving a reason, United BD dropped down to two flights a week, leaving only the national carrier, Biman Bangladesh Airlines, offering (on paper) five flights a week. Bangladesh is the only one of Nepal’s neighbors that offers so few flights. Even Bhutan, a country of 775,000, flies daily to Kathmandu. Filling the plane does not appear to be an issue. So why is it so hard for John to get here?

Monsoon fog hugs the mountains on a recent landing into Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

Monsoon fog hugs the mountains on a recent landing into Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

Nepal, a land of steep mountains, narrow valleys, unpredictable weather and few paved roads, offers 48 airports, though most are dirt strips precariously cleared on narrow mountain ledges. The Kathmandu valley is circled by hills (the Nepalis call anything under 4000m a ‘hill’) that require a plane to dive sharply down towards the airport. Auto-pilot is not an option here. It is required to be a visual pilot (not co-pilot) landing. The runway also has reoccurring problems, especially during the monsoon rains, when cracks widen and close the airport for hours or even a day or more. The local fauna gets in its dibs as well. Last month an earthworm infestation on the runway attracted so many birds that landings were suspended and planes diverted. Nearby garbage dumping also attracts birds that have cracked a few aircraft windshields. During the three-month long monsoon rains, thunderstorms and wind shear over Kathmandu can force planes to re-route to India and Dhaka.

Flight Radar24 flight patterns on a recent day in Kathmandu

Flight Radar24 flight patterns on a recent day in Kathmandu

A Nepali friend has hooked me onto FlightRadar24, and from the comfort of my Ikea lounge chair, I can follow live-time landings and take-offs into the valley. I have spent way too much time tracking the red loops made by as many as five little planes at a time as they circle over and over and over Chitwan National Park waiting for permission to edge towards Kathmandu.

Even before takeoff, Biman has challenges. State-owned, cash-strapped, with little transparency and a poorly-maintained fleet, its functioning planes get juggled from route to route. The Kathmandu route is a frequent victim. But even then, if and when you take-off, the problems are not always solved. The last week of July, the Nepal-bound flight caught fire when it blew four of its left-side tires as it landed in Kathmandu. No one was injured.

Last Friday, John went to the airport for his 11:00 a.m. Biman flight (Friday is the first day of the Bangladeshi weekend). Once there he was told it had been delayed to 4:00 pm, a common occurrence. The plane then took off on time but after a half hour, an announcement was made in Bangla that the plane had technical difficulties and would have to return to Dhaka. As the plane turned around, John saw a man wearing a Biman pilot’s uniform taking out a prayer rug from the overhead bin and commencing to pray in the aisle. Perhaps for that reason the plane landed safely?

Once back in Dhaka, passengers were then kept in the airport for five hours, with-half hourly promises of updates that never came, until 10:00 pm when Biman, faced by an angry plane-load of people, cancelled the flight. With Sunday a working day in Bangladesh, it didn’t make sense for John to attempt the next day’s flight.

A newspaper article a few days later explained that the A310-300 S2-ADK , the sole Biman craft that flies the Kathmandu route, had had a throttle stagger, a problem with the control that maintains the speed of the plane on landing and take-off. Two days before, this same plane had an unidentified technical glitch that again forced Biman to cancel the daily flight. The acting CEO of Biman had some vague and not very proactive words to share with his airline’s clients. “I have heard of frequent problems on the Dhaka-Kathmandu route and we might have to think about the A310-300 S2-ADK,” said Mosaddique Ahmed to the Daily Star newspaper.

I can hear my sister telling me: “Dony, stop being so pathetic!” In my foreign correspondent days, I flew sitting with chickens, goats, a metal bucket full of garlic- covered raw meat at my feet, standing behind the pilot during nose-dive mountain landings and sitting on bales of Khat in a propeller plane gutted of seats and flown by a pilot wearing a black bowler hat. It’s the frustration really. It means another week not seeing John. It means his having no choice but to take an unsafe airline to do his job. It’s the irony of Bangladesh. In our world of globalization, of instant communication, of apps that do everything but brush your teeth, in the world’s eighth most populated country home to brilliant novelists and poets, Nobel prize winners, world famous NGOs, the national airline can’t even maintain good connections with its neighbors.

Fog rolls into the valley burying the mountains that encircle Kathmandu in a thick white veil © Donatella Lorch

Fog rolls into the valley burying the mountains that encircle Kathmandu in a thick white veil © Donatella Lorch

This week, heavy and constant monsoon rains have been coating the region from Bangladesh across Bhutan and Nepal, and the fog enshrouds us here in Kathmandu in a thick white veil. Our house is on the main flight path and the grumble of passing jet engines are a soothing reminder that, yes, planes are still landing. Today a Nepali friend messaged me that he’d stopped for puja (worship) at Pashupatinath, one of the world’s holiest Shiva shrines, just to get a blessing for today’s Biman flight. There were no praying pilots on board this week. The flight circled a number of times over the valley. But the flight made it. A good day for the Dhaka commute.

What 2071 means to me or how I am learning the art of living in Nepal

Bodhnath Stupa, a UNESCO World Heritage site is an island of calm in the chaos of Kathmandu. ©Donatella Lorch

Boudhanath Stupa, a UNESCO World Heritage site is an island of calm in the chaos of Kathmandu. ©Donatella Lorch

It’s New Years this week in Nepal. Welcome to the year 2071. It has taken me almost a year to move the Gregorian calendar aside and understand strange names of months that now begin in what my previous life considered mid-month. Luckily my cell phone has helped me cope with the transition: ”Dear customer,” it told me on April 14th, “Applicable monthly charges will be deducted tomorrow on the 1st of Baisakh.”

I’ve had to do a lot of mental gearshifts. I used to think that having a New Year’s Eve celebration was normal but in Nepal there are seven New Years, each with their own celebration. Nepali culture is based on festivals: your god, my god, their god — any occasion is good.

During Laxmi Puja, a festiva; that celebrates Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth, Nepalese light up they city with butter lamps and worship her in the temples. ©Donatella Lorch

During Laxmi Puja, a festival that celebrates Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth, Nepalese light up the city with butter lamps and worship her in the temples. ©Donatella Lorch

My dog, Biko, gets worshipped on Kukur Puja, and receives a garland, a Tikka and sweet rice cakes. © Donatella Lorch

My dog, Biko, gets worshipped on Kukur Puja, and receives a garland, a Tikka and sweet rice cakes. © Donatella Lorch

For a monotheist like myself who is only a church goer on three days a year (Christmas, Easter and a spare extra for good measure), who has also lived extensively in Islamic countries and who grew up in Manhattan where Jewish holidays were greeted by my father with a sigh of relief as alternate side of the street parking was suspended, I had never lived before with 330 million Hindu gods as well as Buddhist deities, demons and demonesses shared by both faiths. Early on, I started outlining in my diary Super God family trees as the top three male and female deities have multiple incarnations with their own offspring. There are official God festivals that can last more than a week. There are holy days for cows, dogs, crows and even airplanes.

Festival celebrants parade through Bakhtapur Durbar Square. © Donatella Lorch

Festival celebrants parade through Bakhtapur Durbar Square. © Donatella Lorch

Even if I wanted to, it is impossible to ignore these festivals and to continue life as it used to be in early 2013. Temples and Buddhist stupas are absolutely everywhere from sprawling ancient Hindu compounds to a stubby lingam that has split a paved road in two, a rock and a bell on the side of a road to the scores of huge ancient and holy pipal trees wrapped with string by worshippers. There are grass covered and white washed stupas dating back centuries whose gentle and humble elegance graces the chaotic polluted city of Kathmandu. Valley hillsides are dotted with gold painted rooftops that end in the airborne curling eves of Buddhist monasteries and nunneries.

The main prayer hall at Kopan Monastery, one of Nepal's biggest Buddhist monasteries. © Donatella Lorch

The main prayer hall at Kopan Monastery, one of Nepal’s biggest Buddhist monasteries. © Donatella Lorch

There is an inclusiveness and a temperance to Nepal’s two main religions that is inspiring and beautiful. Tantric Buddhism is often the bridge between the two and whenever I visit a Hindu temple which often has a Buddhist stupa or icon on the premises, I always feel gratitude to have found a place where religions coexist.

Yet all these festivals, colorful, cacophonous, crowded, and often surreal from my western perspective, easily run week into week and can be a serious drag on economic growth in Nepal. There is no sense of urgency here but rather an overwhelming sense of fatalistic Karma. Whatever will be will be. National holiday or not, businesses and shops close without notice, people don’t show up for work, teachers as well as students can easily skip school. Government offices work on skeleton staffs and restaurants can close down for days on the big holidays of Dasain and Tihar. You don’t really notice this as a tourist (the tourism industry functions on a slightly more energized schedule) but living here sometimes becomes a frustrating effort at getting work done. It is also a sad statement about Nepal’s regional future. Labor productivity is a measure of economic growth and Nepal has one of the lowest labor productivity levels in the world. It has 22 percent unemployment. An inefficient, badly equipped education system means only 11 percent of students complete their secondary education creating a vast unskilled labor force where 25 percent of young Nepalese mostly men aged 20 to 39 have migrated to foreign countries as manual laborers. Government economic policies coupled with corruption hamper more than help the economy. The cost of doing business here is 23 percent more expensive than in China and 15 percent more than in India, its two huge and rather overbearing neighbors.

A solitary Shiva shrine sits amid wheat fields on the southern edge of the capital, Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

A solitary Shiva shrine sits amid wheat fields on the southern edge of the capital, Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

 

There is a phrase used often here, more of a philosophical statement about life in general that is accompanied by a resigned shoulder shrug. “Khe Garne?” loosely translates as “What can one do?” No answer is expected. I catch myself increasingly using that line. Have I surrendered? I wear a red string wrapped around my wrist blessed by a Buddhist monk. I’ll clank the bell at Shiva temples and when I run past mini Hindu shrines along village paths in Kathmandu’s outskirts, I think about how a touch of the forehead can express such powerful devotion.

A Buddhist monk blesses me at Boudhanath Stupa in  Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

A Buddhist monk blesses me at Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

I do believe that the Middle Way offers a beautiful path but I haven’t yet mastered mindfulness and compassion. And I have the greatest admiration for the owner of “The Secret Bakery”, one of Patan’s best bakeries. He is open through festivals, strikes and national holidays. Now that is a businessman with Chutzpah! Happy 2071.

 

Gods have birthdays too. In Kathmandu, none is more bizarre than Shiva’s

Thousands of Hundu devotees stand on line to enter Pashupatinath on Maha ShivaRatri © Donatella Lorch

Thousands of Hindu devotees stand on line to enter Pashupatinath on Maha ShivaRatri © Donatella Lorch

Nepal boasts 330 million gods and counting but none garners a more unusual collection of birthday well-wishers than Lord Shiva, the creator and the destroyer. In non- Hindu terms, Shiva is like the patron saint of Nepal. His spiky trident and his bull are ubiquitous from big city temples to impromptu shrines sprouting up in the middle of fields and roads.  In fact, one of Hinduism’s holiest places, Pashupatinath, in the heart of Kathmandu, is one of the most renowned Shiva shrines as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This year Shiva’s birthday fell on February 27.

Maha ShivaRatri (Big Shiva Night) is a national holiday in Nepal. On the big day, thousands of devotees inched down the main road towards the main gate, tightly packed in a several kilometer-long snaking line waited to enter the holy room where they can worship the Shiva Lingam, a phallus symbolic of the regenerative power of nature.

Sadhus come to Nepal from all over the Indian subcontinent to Pashupatinath in Kathmandu ©Donatella Lorch

Sadhus come to Nepal from all over the Indian subcontinent to Pashupatinath in Kathmandu ©Donatella Lorch

But some birthday guests had come many days before. This year, more than 5,000 Sadhus or ascetic holy men who give up worldly possessions to achieve enlightenment, walked, biked and bused from far reaches of the Indian subcontinent and set up camp in every nook and cranny in the vast complex of Pashupatinath, making for a rather kooky birthday party.

 

Most of eastern Kathmandu roads were closed to traffic to accommodate the crowds. The massive temple complex on the banks of the putrid but very holy Bagmati River was crammed with people. Tiny shack shops were doing brisk business, loudspeakers were blaring and thumping a Bollywood religious song.

Pashupatinath is well known as a cremation site and on Maha Shivaratri festival it was business as usual. © Donatella Lorch

Pashupatinath is well known as a cremation site and on Maha Shivaratri festival it was business as usual. © Donatella Lorch

Pashupatinath is famous for its open-air cremations and the very distinctive both sweet and acrid smell of burning flesh and scented wood hit me even before I reached the three pyres that were brightly crackling, the smoke curling upwards into the grey sky. Amid the relatives of the dead squatting near holy men and asking for blessings, a young boy on very high stilts was entertaining a crowd of devotees. But this was not the scene that distinguishes Pashupatinath.

 

On an upper terrace, in between several small temples laid out around a square were hundreds of saffron robed Sadhus, scores of devotees, some tourists and about a dozen police. Some Sadhus, called Naga Sadhus, were naked or almost so. Many were smeared in ash with massive dreadlocks piled on their heads, colorfully painted faces and long beards.

One Sadhu sat shivering covered only by a blanket. © Donatella Lorch

One Sadhu sat shivering covered only by a blanket. © Donatella Lorch

One, with only a loincloth and a blanket, his eye rims bright red sat shivering and mumbling. In the chilly, drizzling morning, they shared home-made fires smoking more than burning on the stone pavement.  The cremation scent quickly mixed with wafts of ganja (marijuana) that grew more and more intense as I walked deeper into the complex, stinging my eyes and coating my lungs.

This Sadhu greatly enjoyed his ganja. © Donatella Lorch

This Sadhu greatly enjoyed his ganja. © Donatella Lorch

This year the police were not allowing the open sale of drugs but some of the Sadhus were doing a brisk business with young Nepali men as police looked on.

 

Religion aside, this is a money making venture for many Sadhus. A tourist pays one who then allows him  to take pictures. © Donatella Lorch

Religion aside, this is a money making venture for many Sadhus. A tourist pays one who then allows him to take pictures. © Donatella Lorch

While many devotees want to pay their respects to the Lingam, some do gather for blessings from these yogis who are thought to be very wise and gifted with special powers. Some Hindus consider them saints and the government of Nepal feeds and lodges them for their entire stay. The Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT) estimates that about $14,000 will be spent on their room and board. The government also provides each one with a financial ‘gift’ when they leave.

Devotees come to ask for guidance from Sadhus and pray together. © Donatella Lorch

Devotees come to ask for guidance from Sadhus and pray together. © Donatella Lorch

The yogis may have been saintly and one claimed he was 110 years old but a lot of their holiness and their weird charm was lost for me as I watched their aggressive demands for money from anyone who wanted to take their pictures. In fact picture-taking was a brisk business. They may claim to forgo all worldly possessions, but many had easily available change for big bills. I photographed one foreign tourist busy posing one Sadhu in a variety of different poses against a wall. No doubt for a hefty fee.

 

Thousands of people throng to Pashupatinath on  Shiva's birthday. © Donatella Lorch

Thousands of people throng to Pashupatinath on Shiva’s birthday. © Donatella Lorch

Sadhus belong to different sects. There was one much smaller group of Sadhus that were given a wide berth by their fellow ascetics and by the crowds. These men, dressed entirely in black, are Tantric or followers of the occult and worship Bhairav or Shiva’s fiercest manifestation. Some Hindus believe that they live near cremation grounds and feed off of human remains. When I saw them they were eating rice.

 

Then of course, like at every huge party anywhere in the world, there are also the Birthday gate-crashers. Beware, not all Sadhus are real Sadhus.

In Nepal, Life and Death Meet in a World Heritage Site

Pashumatinath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site adjacent to Kathmandu's airport. It is also the city's best known cremation site. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Pashupatinath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site adjacent to Kathmandu’s airport. It is also the city’s best known cremation site. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

The Pashupati temple complex with the burning cremation ghats on the left

The Pashupati temple complex with the burning cremation areas on the left

Pilots do visual landings into Kathmandu, first skimming then dipping down sharply over the rims of the nearby hills that encircle the valley and stopping at the end of a runway that abuts the city’s downtown.  There is no long highway into town, no time for visitors to slowly absorb the capital city’s chaotic traffic, smells, dust, colors or history. Everything is there —- immediately.

Just drive through Tribhuvan International Airport’s huge orange and gold gateway, make a right, pass the golf course and you arrive, just a few hundred meters from the runway, at Pashupatinath, one of Kathmandu’s seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, and one the world’s holiest Shiva Shrines. It doesn’t look very sacred from the outside especially if you enter through the gauntlet of stalls selling religious knick knacks, but amid the huge bewildering pantheon of gods in Nepal, here you have reached the apex of Hindu spiritual power.

The site, on the banks of the Bagmati River, the country’s holiest river that feeds into the Ganges, is in a big park and consists of a collection of temples, shrines and cisterns that were first built in the 4thc AD though the main pagoda styled temple was also rebuilt in the 17thc. These days, the Bagmati’s other claim to fame is its overwhelming filth. The river is dead, a thick, slimy grey liquid, lined by garbage and coating nearby neighborhoods with its choking stench. Added into the complex are a hospice and a temple doubling as an old age home founded by Mother Teresa where homeless elderly live amid devotees ringing sacred bells and making food offerings at the myriad mini shrines.

At Mother Teresa's hospice, the elderly live in a working shrine.  (copyright Donatella Lorch)

At Mother Teresa’s hospice, the elderly live in a working shrine. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Here Shiva is the Lord of the Beasts not the fearful and destructive Bhairab and devotees flock to worship him from all over the subcontinent and the world. Non-Hindus are not allowed in certain parts of the temple. I brought my four kids here so they could see, touch, smell and experience Hinduism and its rituals for the first time.  We share the shrine’s stone paths with devotees, tourists, wandering cows, scrawny stray dogs, beggars and what our guide calls “the Hollywood Sadhus,” the ash coated and orange-dressed bearded holy men who demand money for pictures.

Playing tourist with the Hollywood Saddhus. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Playing tourist with the Hollywood Saddhus. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Pashupatinath is also a favored location for Hindu cremations. It is the open presence of death that I think shocks western visitors the most. As the smoke from the pyres wafts over and around us, Richard, our Christian guide from India, brings us to a terrace overlooking two on-going cremations to describe the technicalities and the ritual. Bodies are cremated rapidly after death, preferably the same day. The body is first taken to the edge of the Bagmati and the feet dipped in the water, symbolically the last effort to see if they are still alive. It is then carried to the ghat and placed in a pyre of wood to burn between three and four hours. Women are fattier and take longer to cremate. The umbilical cord, which apparently does not incinerate, is buried in the soil of the shallow Bagmati, as part of the cycle of rebirth. In a complex ritual, the relatives receive the ashes and then go to the other shore of the Bagmati for puja (worship) before giving the ashes to the river. The northern most cremation area is reserved for the royal family. Here in 2001, the king and queen and eight members of the royal family, who had all been gunned down by the crown prince, were simultaneously cremated.

the cremation ghats

the cremation site

My eight year old is okay with all this. He has been living here for six months and sees cremations in the neighborhood temples where we live. The word “Puja” is an integral part of his vocabulary. He knows that pious Hindu adult sons must wear only white (shoes too) for a year when their father dies and when we drive through town, he regularly points out the men in white. He knows that for the first 13 days after a father’s death, a truly pious adult son lives alone and can only shower outdoors. He cannot touch anybody, eating only once a day boiled rice with ghee, lemon and fruit. He cannot sleep with his wife.

My teenage boys, at school in North America and both argumentative philosophers, are keen to discuss the meaning of life. For my 21-year-old daughter, I think listening to the crackle of the pyre and watching the stoker push back embers around a protruding foot, is part surreal and part overwhelming. The public and physically intimate ritual of handling a dead person does not exist for us. When a relative died recently, we all said our goodbyes as she lay in a hospital bed. A few days later, we received the ashes. The ritual, if there was one, was highly impersonal. I wonder what the elderly who live in the next-door hospice think when the distinct smell of burning human flesh wafts into their abode.

Waking Lord Shiva by ringing the bell in Mother Teresa's hospice (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Waking Lord Shiva by ringing the bell in Mother Teresa’s hospice (copyright Donatella Lorch)

But Pashupatinath is not only about the dead. It is about a vast number of festivals, daily pujas and ceremonies. One of the biggest yearly festivals, the Maha Shivaratri (Great Shiva Night), falls on February 28th 2014. Thousands of Sadhus come from all over Nepal, India and the rest of the world for a week of prayer, smoking marihuana and bathing in the Bagmati.  Some strip naked. Mark your calendars.