The most important Hindu pilgrimage site for followers of Shiva, Pashupatinath, lies on the eastern side of Kathmandu. With an amazig enclave of temples, cremation ghats, ritual bathers and half-naked sadhus, the Nepalese claim it as least as holy as India’s Varanasi. In Hinduism it is believed that those who die and are cremated here get an instant gateway to liberation from the cycle of births and re-births.
Before the 20th century, widows used to commit sati – to throw themselves in the husbands’ funeral pyres. Now, it is still widely believed that husbands and wives who bathe here together will be remarried in the next life. Despite its filth the Bagmati River is held by conservative Hindus to be the holiest one in the Kathmandu Valley.
The sight of bathers, worshippers, grieving families and one public cremation after another was something I’d never experienced before. Standing together with other pilgrims opposite the cremation platforms, I saw that the cremation rituals included the eldest son having his beard and head shaved, wearing white clothes of mourning. As you couldn’t actually see the body being burnt – covered with wood and straw – a local told me that the body is lit by the mouth. Finally, the ashes were swept into the river.
The sacred place also attracts sadhus – or holy men – who, although mostly an Indian phenomenon, are common at Pashupatinath, as many of them follow Shiva. They live solitary lives, have abandoned all possessions, subsist on alms, following the path to enlightenment. Some smear themselves with human ashes, symbolising Shiva’s role as the destroyer, who reduces all things to ash so that creation can begin anew.