Sunday, April 25, 2010

Pashupatinath Temple; a sacred place to die

Pashupatinath, or Pashupati, is a Hindu temple dedicated to a manifestation of Shiva called Pashupati (Lord of Animals). It attracts thousands of pilgrims each year. The temple itself is not open to non-Hindus, but anyone can wander around the area. Tania and I went there late in the evening with my 'adopted nephew,' Belief, and that was the only time that I have ever been there when there wasn't a crushing crowd.

I remember my first trip to Pashupati 18 years ago was very disturbing. There were maimed beggars and people who looked like they were dying lying on the ground. A vendor called me over and tried to sell me a highly decorated real human skull that was hidden behind a curtain. Then there was a strange green-eyed woman with a shaved head who stared at me and followed me around.

The place looked very different this time. I saw one holy baba asking for money, but that was probably because of the time of day. The vendors had been moved away from the temple, and the maimed people were gone. (If you will look closely at the top of the first photo, you will see a glowing mystery orb. These orbs were in all of the night photos I took in Nepal. My best guess is the camera flash reflected off of some dust.)

The fire on the steps is a cremation

My Nepali nephew had been there only a few weeks earlier with his family to preform the funeral ceremony for his grandfather. He explained what we witnessed. First the feet of the deceased are dipped into the Bagmati river at the bottom of the temple stairs and washed. Then the body is carried around and laid with flowers on the ghat, which is the pyre platform. Finally, the fire is lit. After the cremation, we saw some people wading in and sifting through the water collecting items that didn't burn.

This is all very public. Although non-Hindus can not be where the grieving families are. They can watch and take pictures from the bridge and the other side of the river. I asked my nephew if he found it disturbing or scary to be at Pashupatinath, because that was what I was feeling. But no, he felt that it was a safe place. For him it was a place of protection where you could understand that we would all be welcomed back to Shiva in the end. In fact, it is considered an auspicious place to die.

The temple complex included one tall building with a golden roof. For the first time, I saw inside the doors leading to the tall building when we walked around to the back side of the temple. Through wide open doors I could hear the powerful throbbing drum music coming from within. Inside was a massive golden bull, the steed of Shiva. It looked to me to be at least 15 feet tall surrounded by devotees. The sounds and sights were very exciting though a little spooky.

The last place that we stopped on Saturday, was Boudanath Stupa. I thought that it would be all lit up and beautiful. But the power was out, as usual. We ate vegetable momos at a restaurant that overlooked the stupa. Sitting by the window, we watched the pilgrims circumambulate and rotate their prayer wheels by the light of the offering candles.


The next day, we had to get up very early. We were leaving the valley, by jeep, for the mountain school.


  1. Simply fascinating! You have woven a magnificent tapestry of your life. It must be so fulfilling.

  2. I am enjoying this so much! A question though, when they cremate what does the air smell like? Any different from any animal flesh being burned? I suppose not but it must be a little creepy.

  3. I"m so grateful that you've taken the time to convey this adventure to us...and your feelings of fear..cultural, primal? It's good to know that what we fear, other's don't! Thank you...

  4. Hi - back to check out your 'orb'. You must mean the white orb in the window ?? I thought it was perhaps an opening in the structure that was revealing a full moon ...

    I do a lot of editing with some photographs, but I am not an expert on cameras or exposures ... or spooky phenomena!! :0) Let me know if you figure out this mystery!

  5. Hi Ellen,

    I don't remember a particular odor other than burning wood. It did cross my mind that I should be smelling buring hair and flesh because I was standing on the bridge very close to the fire. I really only smelled smoke. That whole afternoon my eyes were burning with what I thought was pollution, and my throat was raw. I felt like I was getting a cold. When I left the valley the next day, I stopped coughing and my eyes were fine. There are so many unfamiliar smells in Nepal that I might not have been able to sort one from another. They burn an extraordinary amount of incense, especially at temples.

    Bonnie, thanks for looking at the orb. The window led to an interior room and there was no glass in the window. I also don't think there was a moon that night. I'm still thinking dust speck. But it is a strange one.

  6. So facintating. I would feel the same way, curious, a little uneasy, especially wanting to make sure i was doing the right thing and not breaking any rules. It's okay to go in the Stupa then? Is that inside where you are standing in front of all the candles?
    I love reading these posts Jennifer, and look forward to everyone.
    thank you,

  7. hey lady - fascinating post, as are all of yours over here - always look forward to being allowed to follow along on your exotic journeys -

    oh, and lest i forget, was just over at rob and trish's blog and saw that you'd mentioned vending at dupont circle in dc on weekend - are you there often? one of my all time favorite places!!!

  8. I am with all the above commenters in thanking you for sharing your visit. Nepal sounds like a fascinating place and so different.

  9. Dear Lori ann,

    As far as I know, you can not go inside a stupa. A stupa is something like a burial mound for holy relics. It might contain hair, bones or belongings of a deceased holy person even from the Buddha himself. You can walk around stupas and in some cases on them. Here is a video of Boudanath during the festival of Losar,
    The picture of me in front of the candles was taken at night just in front of the stupa.

    Dear Gypsy, I haven't been vending at Dupont Circle for 16 years. It was fun, but my things were too expensive for street vending which gets them very dirty. I was in Gaithersburg, MD this weekend for the Bead Society of Greater Washington Bead Bazaar. You can see my show schedule at Next weekend, I will be in Cincinnati, OH.

    Peace everyone, thanks for the wonderful comments.

  10. Amazing. We are all voyeurs in a sense, traveling with you in retrospect. I'm ready to sign up for your next trip. When is it? As you portray it, Nepal is a visual and spiritual feast.

  11. I have been planning a kind of tour through the Religions of the Himalayas for years. I want to show people areas of pre-Hindu culture, meet and talk with a Jhankri (Shaman), see the Hindu holy places and the birthplace of Buddha and I want to include a Journey into Tibet. I have the right contacts to guide the journey, but the timing has been very poor the last several years in Nepal. For now, the best I can do is say, I would love to have you with me but you come with me at your own risk.

  12. It sounds like an adventure, Butternut. Risk and all! Keep me posted, seriously.

  13. Beautiful,lovely and fantastic shots ! This is an amazing place !! I have been there and this year end i would also go there..

  14. Your complexity continues to amaze me!