Archive for November 6th, 2009

Burning bodies

Pashupatinath, October 29, 2009

“What are the men, the ones in the river, below the cremation platforms doing with the fine toothed rakes and other garden tools” I asked my very knowledgeable and passionate Hindu guide.  “They are looking for the jewelry and gold teeth of those who have been released from this earth” he said in a matter a fact manor. Thus started my tour and sobering experience at the most holy Hindu site in Nepal – Pashupatinath.

platformsCremation platforms

About 50-60 people are cremated here every day and the environment is hard for a westerner, at least me, to get my head around. Most of the bodies are from the Kathmandu area and some come from the hospice facility here at the temple.  If you happen to be lucky enough to ever leave this hospice alive, you are considered a miracle and are given a new name because you have been saved by the gods are “reborn”.

man tending cremationMan tending cremation fire

There are three main components to this temple; the cremation area (dead and mourning), the fertility section (trying to make life – either happy or sad depending on how you are doing), and the main temple area (general Hindu worship – happy or sad also seemed to be the prevailing conditions) that is restricted to those born into the faith.

phallic symbolsFertility shrines with phallic symbols

On the day of my visit, I watch and/or invade in morbid fascination as 8 bodies burn on the platforms, and their ashes are pushed into the filthy but highly sacred river that ultimately connects to the holiest of all Hindu river – the mighty Ganges in India. I see young couples praying over phallic symbols in the hopes of conception – specifically male conception. And, being it was the first day of the marriage season, the main temple is full of joyous or worried worshipers celebrating the potential opportunities available during this holy “union” season.

people leaving templePeople leaving temple

Large pieces of saddle wood are stacked in a manor similar to the “log cabin” camp fire method taught by the Boy Scouts.  Smaller pieces of wood are put inside the frame, and very light and dry material is added as kindling. The bodies, all of which died today, come wrapped in shrouds of white linen.  As per custom, nothing has been removed from the body after death.  In fact, most of the person possessions will be given away or thrown into the river so the persons soul we leave unencumbered by worldly possessions and leave the home.  Often a piece of shroud is torn away and filled with rice or other offerings, and carnations are abundant throughout the entire temple and float down the stinking coco brown river as orange islands. The toes of the body are touched in the blessed river and the dead are placed north or south on the “cabin” depending on gender.

old manHindu man

While Hindu people do not believe in organ donation, they do allow for the corneas to be removed and reused.  Therefore, immediately behind the platforms is the eye removal center, complete with a huge sign advertising such. A man is assigned to light and tend the fire that will burn for 4-5 hours. A mourning man will shave his head and eyebrows and will wear all white for an entire year after the ceremony.  Mourning women completely forgo all color from their traditional dress of gorgeous red, green, yellow Sari’s. If they are touched with color during the year, they will start the grieving anew.

oled womenWomen leaving temple

When the process is complete, large pieces of wood are still smoking, and they along with the ashes of the body and other fuel are pushed into the river.  This wood is retrieved and made into charcoal for further burning in homes for fuel or heat. While standing a respectable distance away, contemplating the inappropriateness of taking photos, I struggle with understanding what I am watching: “Those are bodies, those guys are looking for their teeth, that cow just below the platform just defecating in the water, that wood is going to be made into charcoal, those people over there are pouring a liquid that simulates bodily fluids into and on a phallic symbol, those goats are humping amongst all those pigeons and kids throwing rice, that women is prayer her daughter marries a good Hindu man, that man has no feet….”

Above the public platforms there are concrete stands for those of royal (not now as the Monarchy was dissolved post Maoist revolution (which has apparently started again since I got here, but that is another story) or other “important” people.  While here, one of these VIP’s is also torched off, but I never figure out who he was; no one seems to know. In the high rent section there is a larger area for public viewing and a lot of followers look on between praying for babies and marriage success. They seem neither happy or sad, but simply at the temple like any other day.  Some threw coins in the water, and young boys who wade in their underwear cast large magnets into the liquid that started as water, and drag the bottom in hopes of securing their fortune. Like committed fisherman they throw and retrieve their lures over and over and over.

Some of the dogs (those who go in the water) around the temple are frightening in appearance. Like Chemo therapy, the chemical soup of liquid has made their hair fall out creating an alien and grotesque looking creatures. Apparently there are rug factories up stream that discharge a deadly toxic slurry directly into this sacred river. The people know this, but readily wash there feet in the water before entering the holy site.  My guide tells me that it is sad the river is polluted, but he dreams of the day he to will be pass from this life and be put into this water body also.  He is not looking to die, but rather is a man of great devotion, who believes things are as they are supposed to be…..it is all a process.  “I do hope I do NOT come back as a dog” he adds however.

We see the holy men who truly look like highly colorful (complete with face painting), dreadlocked,  sunglass wearing, pot heads.  I don’t get any photos because they expect a commission in order to refill their pipes. I begin to think I am being closed minded and try to remember these are the holiest men in the Hindu religion. As reading my mind, my guide says: “The Sadhas, are the holiest of men, they are buried and not burned because this is there last incarnation….they have reached nirvana or perfection and will not be coming back, so they get to sit around all day, be lazy, and smoke hash in this life; very lucky”.

cows in riverCows below the cremation platforms

After paying my guide I go back into the temple area.  I put my camera away and walk to the cremation side of the river.  I am welcomed by a stoned Sadhas, who tries to bless me with grey ash (who knows where that came from) he was covered in,  to an area just above the bodies and the burn platforms.  I sit for a long time.  I do not remember what I think about, but I know it forever changes my perspective on “How things are”.  It has been said that this type of travel will “Rearrange your internal furniture”. I liked the sound of that before I left easy street California, but now that I am in deep, I wonder what happens to you when the furniture is complexly turned upside down?

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