Faith, Faces, and Fakes : Pashupatinath, Kathmandu Nepal

Portrait: bearded man in elaborate face paint, tinsel, artificial flowers, and pompoms, Pashupatinath Nepal

Colourful “Sadhu”
With his elaborate face paint – and the tinsel, artificial flowers, and pompoms in his hair – this man is a far cry from the ascetic sadhus one sees wandering all over India and Nepal.

Pashupatinath, three kilometres northwest of Kathmandu on the Bagmati River, is home to one of the most sacred of Nepal’s Hindu temples and cremation sites.

One of the “seven groups of monuments and buildings” that make up the UNESCO-listed Kathmandu ValleyPashupatinath Temple and the Bagmati Cremation Ghats are also on just about every tourist’s itinerary while in the city. So, the site hosts a mix of holy people tending shrines and selling blessings, venders trading in all manner of religious paraphernalia and offerings, Hindu pilgrims, non-Hindu tourists and gawkers, hawkers of tourist trinkets, and beggars.

The first time I visited Pashupatinath, some 15+ years ago (see: Heaven and Hard Work), I was almost overwhelmed by the experience: I found the sight of families around the ghats across the black and filthy river, with their deceased loved ones in flames, distressing and ineffably sad. The hot, humid air was thick with the smells of smoke from the funeral pyres, burning incense, and human waste. A crowd of beggars, children and hawkers attached themselves to the small group I was travelling with, and it was impossible to move without almost stepping on someone. 

Last March, thanks to a workshop organised by travel photographer Gavin Gough, with the help of photojournalist Jack Kurtz, I got to visit again with a small group of photography enthusiasts.

Pashupatinath has changed: the April 2015 earthquake hit this area, damaging some of the shrines. It was raining, so the steps on the east bank of the Bagmati were washed clean, and much less crowded than I remembered. I certainly don’t remember wildly-decorated “sadhus” hanging around with their hands out for money! 

But, I too have changed. I have much more “travel experience” under my belt now, and deal much more easily with the unfamiliar. I found myself “seeing” much more of the site this trip, and interacting more comfortably with all the people there – not just those dressed up for the benefit of the tourists.

I spent some time visiting the Siddhi Shaligram Briddhashram, the “Home for the Elderly”, a Social Welfare Center facility originally built as the Panchdeval (five shrines) Pakshala during the mid- to late 19th century within the grounds of the Pashupatinath Temple complex. This is a beautiful, serene facility for frail old people without independent means, and whose relatives can’t or won’t care for them in a world that has moved towards more stand-alone nuclear families. It was a shame that photos were not allowed inside, because not only did the elderly residents have a quiet dignity, but the central shrine itself –  although damaged by the earthquake – was beautiful.

This set of photos speaks much more about the people of Pashupatinath than the place.

Burning Ghats on the Bagmati River, Pashupatinath Nepal

Burning Ghats
The cremation ghats, in use 24 hours a day, line the west bank of the Bagmati River.

A burning ghat on the Bagmati River, Pashupatinath Nepal

Cremation Pyre
Hindus believe that fire purifies and liberates the body, allowing it to disintegrate back into the five Mahabhutas, or great elements.

People on the east bank of the Bagmati, Pashupatinath Nepal

People on the Steps
Many local and international tourists enter the temple area from the east bank. Perhaps it is a consequence of the still-low post-earthquake tourist numbers, but this area was much less crowded than I remembered from my last visit many years ago.

Rhesus macaque monkey, east bank of the Bagmati, Pashupatinath Nepal

Monkey on the Steps
The monkeys (rhesus macaques) on the river bank enjoy scraps from the visitors and the sadhus.

Three colourful "Sadhus", east bank of the Bagmati, Pashupatinath Nepal

Colourful Sadhus
Three brightly painted “holy men” were waiting in the alcoves on the east bank for tourists to take their pictures.

Sadhu with a Kumbh, bank of the Bagmati, Pashupatinath Nepal

Sadhu with a Kumbha 
Nepali Hindus that I spoke to insisted that these are fake “holy men” from India; …

Sadhu with a Kumbh, bank of the Bagmati, Pashupatinath Nepal

Sadhu with a Water Pot
real sadhus – especially Nepali ones – don’t beg to have their pictures taken.

Colourful "Sadhu", east bank of the Bagmati, Pashupatinath Nepal

Colourful Sadhu
But, I think it is a bit like the men in leather togas at the coliseum in Rome: they stand around all day in costumes and if you want to take their picture, you pay for it. It’s a tough way to make a living! We agreed a price up front, and made our shots.

Bridge over the Bagmati River, Pashupatinath Nepal

Bridge over the Bagmati River
Non-Hindus are not allowed into the inner temple, but there are plenty of nooks, crannies and shrines to explore regardless.

Hindu Holy Woman with coloured powders, Pashupatinath Nepal

Hindu Holy Woman
My first stop was to get a tilaka (or bindi) applied to my forehead, some kalava threads tied around my wrist, and blessings in general bestowed upon me, by a holy woman.

Portrait: Hindu Holy Woman, Pashupatinath Nepal

Hindu Holy Woman

Portrait: Hindu Holy Woman, Pashupatinath Nepal

Hindu Holy Woman
Having a tilaka on my forehead already didn’t stop the next woman from beckoning me into her little shrine for another blessing.

Young child applying Tika Powder, Pashupatinath Nepal

Applying Tika Powder
Morning rituals start young!

Young child applying Tika Powder, Pashupatinath Nepal

Total Focus
Creating a tilaka takes a great deal of attention.

Portrait: Hindu Woman, Pashupatinath Nepal

Tenacity and Grace
Always graceful, but unrelenting: this saleswoman was determined that I should buy one the necklaces she had for sale. Of course, I was no match – and did.

Stairs Up through the Pashupatinath complex, Nepal

Stairs Up
The temple complex continues up a set of steps, away from the river.

An orange Ganesh figure in a Hindu shrine, Pashupatinath Nepal

Although most of the complex is dedicated to Pashupati, an incarnation of Shiva, this shrine features the elephant-headed god Ganesha.

Shrines in the Pashupatinath complex, Nepal

Old trees, moss-covered shrines, and piles of rubble are everywhere.

Old bell in the Pashupatinath complex, Nepal

Old Bell

Ruins in the Pashupatinath complex, Nepal

Ornate concrete fascia pieces sit in a pile amongst the many shrines.

Monkey in the Ruins in the Pashupatinath complex, Nepal

Monkey in the Ruins
The monkeys are at home here.

Guru and a Golden Statue, Pashupatinath complex, Nepal

Pouring Water over a Golden Statue
They (and I) watch over a wall as a man pours water over a golden statue; …

Guru pouring water over a Golden Statue, Pashupatinath complex, Nepal

Guru and a Golden Statue

Ruined arches inside an enclosure, Pashupatinath complex, Nepal

Ruins inside the Enclosure
There was an entry into the enclosure housing the golden statue. Cows roamed freely, and pieces of old buildings slid into collapse.

Off Duty Police Officer iPhone

Off-Duty Police Officer
With broken English and pantomime, this charming young policeman and I had a chat. He explained that the man in orange was paying tribute to his guru. (iPhone6)

A man washing the Golden statue of Yogi Narahari Nath

Yogi Narahari Nath
Much research later, I managed to ascertain that the golden statue is of Yogi Narahari Nath (1915–2003), an influential Nepalese “historian, writer and saint of Nath tradition of Gorakhnath.” 

It is amazing what you learn when you have a chance to talk to people at the sites that “everybody” visits!


Until next time, 


Pictures: 11March2017

  • sidran - July 22, 2017 - 5:48 am

    Delightful post, as always. The Sadhus-real and fraud look interesting. That kid applying tilak stole my heart!ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - July 23, 2017 - 3:47 am

      Thanks very much, Sidran. That child was a cutie – and just ignored me while I watched! 😀ReplyCancel

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