by Fabrizio Fiorenzano
Pashupatinath is one of the most important Hindu temples in Nepal. Located near the Bagmati River, it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with a few other legendary temples in Kathmandu. At the ghats (stairs leading down to the river), funeral pyres are constantly being built for the open-air cremations taking place on a daily basis. Non-Hindus are not allowed access to the Pashupatinath temple, but the real attraction for both Nepalese and foreign visitors are the cremations. Cremations are part of life and death, but not something that anyone would want to witness too often.
As one approaches the Bagmati River, the smokestacks of ongoing cremations are normally visible in the distance. People in Nepal are cremated in different sites, depending on their social and economic status in life. One is reserved for members of the royal family, another one for wealthy and prestigious families, and several others for the common folk. The cremation places for the commoners are located at the other end of the bridge, kept out of sight from the places used by the royals and the wealthy. From the opposite bank of the river one can observe all of the various ongoing activities.
The fire is managed by two persons, who appear to be close family members. They use long bamboo sticks to stir the fire and ensure it consumes everything. Next to the fire a young man sits on the stairs leading down to the river, his head shaven. The whole thing is difficult to understand for us coming from a different culture. It is an impressive but surprisingly not grisly spectacle, as the general atmosphere is serene.
As soon as the pile bursts into flames, the body gets covered with straws soaked in water collected from the nearby holy Bagmati River, resulting in a lot of white smoke. As the head of the body is thus concealed, the attending family members start waiting for the pyre to be fully consumed by the fire, which takes many hours. Once complete, the relatives descend the stairs to dispose of the ashes of the deceased into the river.
Not everyone is cremated. Holy men, lepers and people with smallpox have traditionally been buried, with holy men buried in a vertical position and their bodies preserved with salt. Small children under the age of two also are not cremated, because their souls do not need purifying. Often times today, instead of being buried they are moved by boat to the middle of the Ganges or some other sacred river and then dropped into the waters, tied to a heavy stone to make them sink to the bottom.
Families who cannot afford the wood required for the cremation service sometimes also dump the corpses into the Ganges. On occasion, an effigy is burned to symbolize cremation. Few people are buried and they mostly are victims of suicide, murder, or some other kind of violent death, because it is believed that their souls will never find peace – no matter how the corpse is disposed of.