Pashupatinath Temple feels just as complex as Nepal itself. It is present day and ancient history rolled into one. It’s exact origins are unknown, but the oldest dated inscription is from 459 AD. People have been coming to this place as a holy site since then, and continue to make pilgrimages there today.
The picture above is from the entryway. Most of the visitors were families dressed up for the occasion. Whatever purpose brought people to the temple, everybody stopped and got a photo at the front. For us, that was as far inside was we went- only Hindus are permitted past this point.
There was still plenty to see around the temple grounds.
The main deity of the temple is Lord Shiva, and he is often represented by the “shivalinga” – a stone phallus that represents the creative energy of Shiva. There’s usually some sort of vaginal representation at the base- the representation is literally of the act of creation.
Pashupatinath, like many Shiva temples, is built around a “natural” shivalinga that is said to have been discovered there. We didn’t see that one because it was inside. They say that it’s part of Shiva that stayed on earth when he visited back in the day. A shepherd found it when his cow kept spontaneously dropping her milk there. The real one is said to be underground because it was too much for mortals to handle.
In another town, we visited a cave where you can put money in and have a cow statue drop some fake milk so you can make a wish, because of course you can.
Here is a whole row of shivalingam from Pashupatinath complete with the ashes and colors from recent offerings.
More shivalingam. The ones that are missing were either stolen by the hippies back in the day or taken for use in grinding grain.
There are plenty of holy men around the site. Shiva devotees wear orange, the color of marigolds, and perform a variety of different rituals and acts of self-mortification depending on the path they have chosen to follow.
We had heard lots of stories of foreskin stretching, rolling, and other extreme acts of self-mortification, so we were prepared for just about anything. Nepal is a very modest country, though, so I guess they have restrictions on which days the holy men are allowed to be naked. We were not there on a naked day. The guy in the middle was wearing a heavy chain link chastity belt thing, so he might be one of the foreskin-stretchers on naked days.
The holy men cover their skin with ashes, another symbol of how they reject human taboos.
As a tourist, there was also the uncomfortableness of knowing that they were performing for you because that was their livelihood. You visit the holy men, they bless you, then you give them money, then they ask for more money. We had a guide with us who steered us away from some holy men and took us directly to these guys. He had a lot to say about how different holy men charge for different things and making sure we saw the right ones.
The guy I sat by really wanted me to touch his dreadlocks. Or he assumed that, as a tourist, I really wanted to touch his dreadlocks. When I didn’t touch them after he held them out for me, he put them around my shoulder.
But we were tourists, we were there for a show, they were giving us what we wanted. We were giving them the money that they needed. Still, the whole thing felt very inauthentic. Maybe that’s to be expected with a “see the major sights of Kathmandu in two days” sort of itinerary. It felt exploitative. But I don’t know what I would change.
OK, so let’s talk about death. Pashupatinath is built on the bank of the holy Bagmati river. When a Hindu dies, the body needs to be purified and returned to the elements. The closer this is done to the temple, the easier it is for the spirit to travel there for reincarnation once the body has been cremated. It is also important that this is done as quickly as possible.
So, a lot of the people in and around the temple were there mourning a loved one, or recognizing the anniversary of a death.
The reddish ramp is where bodies are washed in the river and prepared for cremation. The red color is from saffron.
(Interlude- as a tourist, this was hard to get past. People wash their dead relatives in this river, which flows from here into the city of Kathmandu. Kathmandu, the biggest city in the country, with a population that is water-insecure. The river is seen as purifying the bodies, but at the same time, the bodies are polluting the river. On the other hand, the entrance fees go to river cleanup initiatives.)
After the body is washed and prepared, it is cremated. The platform below is reserved for heads of state and other VIPs, because it’s the closest to the temple.
Yes, those are cremations in progress. The sites get gradually less expensive as they get farther from the temple.
In the background you can barely see the chimney of the new electric crematorium that’s been built. Its use doesn’t burn wood or pollute the river. But it also doesn’t have the same significance for families.
The low houses in the background above are where the families stay if they don’t live in Kathmandu. There are a variety of rituals that need to be performed in the week after the death.
Dust masks are common around Kathmandu because of the air quality. At the temple, almost everybody wears them because of the smoke from the cremations.
A year after the death, you’re supposed to return to the site to have a picnic.
The monkeys try to get in on the picnic action. The rest of the time, they climb around the area, through the cremation ashes, and are in and out of the river.
Walking away from the site, the temple starts to fade away and the rest of Kathmandu reappears. Here’s a shop that was selling fabric dyes.
Overall, it was an incredible place to experience. I know that we could only scratch the surface as far as its meaning and history, but it was an incredible experience nonetheless.