Faith, Faces, and Fakes : Pashupatinath, Kathmandu Nepal
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 Valley, Pashupatinath 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.
The cremation ghats, in use 24 hours a day, line the west bank of the Bagmati River.
Hindus believe that fire purifies and liberates the body, allowing it to disintegrate back into the five Mahabhutas, or great elements.
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.
Monkey on the Steps
The monkeys (rhesus macaques) on the river bank enjoy scraps from the visitors and the sadhus.
Three brightly painted “holy men” were waiting in the alcoves on the east bank for tourists to take their pictures.
Sadhu with a Kumbha
Nepali Hindus that I spoke to insisted that these are fake “holy men” from India; …
Sadhu with a Water Pot
… real sadhus – especially Nepali ones – don’t beg to have their pictures taken.
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
Non-Hindus are not allowed into the inner temple, but there are plenty of nooks, crannies and shrines to explore regardless.
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.
Hindu Holy Woman
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.
Applying Tika Powder
Morning rituals start young!
Creating a tilaka takes a great deal of attention.
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.
The temple complex continues up a set of steps, away from the river.
Although most of the complex is dedicated to Pashupati, an incarnation of Shiva, this shrine features the elephant-headed god Ganesha.
Old trees, moss-covered shrines, and piles of rubble are everywhere.
Ornate concrete fascia pieces sit in a pile amongst the many shrines.
Monkey in the Ruins
The monkeys are at home here.
Pouring Water over a Golden Statue
They (and I) watch over a wall as a man pours water over a golden statue; …
Guru and a Golden Statue
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
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)
It is amazing what you learn when you have a chance to talk to people at the sites that “everybody” visits!
Until next time,