Category Archives: Traditions

Pashupatinath Temple

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.


Holy Men

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.

Ritual Cremation

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.


La Romería

In Costa Rica, there is a tradition of walking to the Basilica in Cartago on or around August 2.  It’s believed that a miracle occurred at that spot on Aug. 2, some 400 years ago.  Over 2 million people do the walk each year, which is pretty significant in a country with fewer than 5 million residents!  People walk to give thanks, or they walk to petition for something.  Or, they walk for the experience.  Some people walk barefoot at least part of the way.  People generally walk from their homes if they are physically able to do so.

My family was planning to do the walk Friday night.  My host sister worked that day, so the plan was for her to come home and grab a nap before heading out.  I decided to do the same.  I had already covered about 12 miles earlier in the day between my run and an errand, so getting some rest would be a good thing!  My family prefers to walk at night because it’s cooler and less crowded.

We left just before 9:00 PM.  I walked with my host sister.  Her mom and a neighbor walked at a slower pace.  The first part of the walk was pretty quiet, because we were just walking through the regular neighborhood at night.  Gradually, we started to see more and more small groups of “romeros” (pilgrims), but we were all pretty spread out.

We walked for about an hour before we joined up with the main route that was full of people.  They had closed off the “old highway” between San Jose and Cartago, and this was where people were walking.  This part was also the route by the start of the half marathon that I ran a couple of weeks ago, but in reverse.  So all of those nice downhills from the start of the race were now gradual uphills.  Still, it’s not such a big deal when you’re walking.  We walked at a brisk but not killer page, enough for me to have a light sweat in the humidity.  As we got closer, the crowds made it tough to keep pace.

There were distance markers every kilometer once we joined the main route.  The first sign I saw showed 16 km to go,

There were distance markers every kilometer once we joined the main route. The first sign I saw showed 16 km to go, about an hour in.

We met up with two friends of my host sister at a grocery store.  I got a Nescafe and some bread to munch along the way.

The mood along this stretch was pretty festive.

The mood along this stretch was pretty festive.

In general, it felt like a big party.  The people who were out were generally young, healthy, and excited, although I think that has a lot to do with the time of day more than anything.  There were a bunch of street vendors, or course, selling water, meat-on-a-stick, rosaries, and various other snacks.  There were a couple of people selling shoes or bags, in case yours had worn out along the way.  Bars along the route seemed to be doing pretty brisk business as well.  There were also stages set up along the way with performers who alternated between singing, encouraging people, and asking for donations.

Here is a video from one of the stages/donation areas.  Remember, this is the middle of the night!

One of many little shops along the way.

One of many little shops along the way.



As we went, it started getting steeper, and people got quieter.  The area around Ochomogo was particularly desolate and steep.  Every now and then, a happy group would come through singing or praying or something,

This house had homemade cheese or bean empanadas, coffee, agua dulce, and a bathroom you could pay 60 cents to use.

This house had homemade cheese or bean empanadas, coffee, agua dulce, and a bathroom you could pay 60 cents to use.

We stopped a few times to use the bathrooms.  The lines got longer the closer you got.

The Red Cross had several aid stations set up.

The Red Cross had several aid stations set up.

As we got closer, my heel was starting to bug me.  I had dealt with some plantar fasciitis in the winter, and could feel it sort of creeping back.  I stretched my calves every time we stopped.  My hip had also really been bothering me on my run earlier in the day.  I could feel it on the walk, but it didn’t really hurt.  I do think it gave me a funky stride.

My walking companions were doing pretty well.  They, and apparently everybody else, used a lot of some stuff that smelled like Vapor Rub on their sore muscles.  It seemed to come in a gel and a spray, and the air was thick with it.  But as we got closer, one of our group got pretty bad stomach cramps.  She was walking and clutching her stomach.  We slowed way down, and made several stops.

Video of the crowd going by.  Note the striped polo shirts (previous post) and the vapor rub stuff.

This was about the time that my “I’ve covered a ton of miles today” hunger started to kick in.  Plus, now that we were coming into Cartago, there were more and more places selling food.  But with my host sister on a diet and one member of our party feeling sick, this wasn’t the time to start eating like a marathoner in training.  I bought a small package of cookies while we were at a potty stop, and hoped we would maybe get food at the end.

Finally!  I could see our destination in the distance.

Finally! I could see our destination in the distance.

The Basilica, with the plaza all filled with people trying to get in, taking pictures, sleeping, or praying.

The Basilica, with the plaza all filled with people trying to get in, taking pictures, sleeping, or praying.

Once we arrived at the basilica, my companions looked at the crowd and decided not to try to go in.  It was almost 3 AM, so we had been walking for about 6 hours, including the stops, of course.  I am guessing that it would have been another hour to actually get inside.  According to mapmyrun, I think we covered about 13.5 miles, and with a total elevation gain of 1,370 feet.

You can’t really see it from the picture, but there were two entrances, one to enter on foot, the other on your knees.  The truly devout go on their knees from the doorway to the altar.

Without going in, the trip was just sort of over at that point.  Maybe because I didn’t take part in the prayer with my companions, it didn’t really feel like we came to the end, it just sort of felt like we stopped.

Then it was time to look for a bus back home.  My dreams of food were fading, since the one girl was really not feeling well.

Carnival-style food places like this were all over the place.

Carnival-style food places like this were all over the place.

Lots of people were sleeping after having finished the journey.

Lots of people were sleeping after having finished the journey.

We milled about for a while, then lucked into a bus that was filling up and about to head to San Jose.  It was about $4, which is more than double what the regular price would have been.  I dozed a bit on the bus, since it was stop and go the whole way back.

We got off at a place I didn’t recognize, and hopped into a “pirate” taxi.  Luckily I was with a resident!  I kept my mouth shut and pretended to know what I was doing.  The taxi was about $6 for a 5-minute ride.  Again, way more than usual, but it was really nice to get back home!

We got in a little bit after 4:30.  I pretty much headed straight for bed.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been up that late, if you don’t count the redeye flight to get here!