Waking comfortably at the crack of dawn on our first full day in Nepal, Tessa and I quickly swung into action and headed towards the breakfast hall of the Shankar Hotel.
Across what would be the first of many platefuls of curried potatoes and eggs, I threw a quick greeting to Graham James Lydiatt, who I knew from the pre-expedition briefing day in January. Graham happily informed Tessa and I that he, David Dancey-Wood, and young Jack Evans had seen out the Nepalese New Year the evening before. Perhaps their cheers were among those I heard as I had lain in bed listening in the dark.
Following Graham’s description of the ‘good time had by all’, none of us were hugely surprised to see Jack looking rather the worse for wear when he finally surfaced. And, as we all boarded a bus bound for the Pashaputinath Temple and crematorium, we didn’t wait around for long when David didn’t appear at all.
Pashaputinath Temple and crematorium
Nepal’s oldest temple, the 5th century Pashupatinath shrine is revered by Hindus worldwide. Located on the banks of the Bagmati River in the eastern part of Kathmandu, Pashupatinath is one of the world’s most significant Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. The temple serves as the seat of the national deity, Lord Pashupatinath and is listed in UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.
The priests of Pashaputinath are called Bhattas and the chief priest is called Mool Bhatt or Raval. Only Hindus are allowed to enter the temple premises. Non-Hindu visitors are allowed to have a look at the temple from the other bank of Bagmati river… unless you’re Graham or Jack, who simply strode across the bridge and took a tour along the West bank without a care in the world. No one seemed to mind in the slightest.
Pashupatinath Temple’s existence dates back to 400 A.D. The richly-ornamented pagoda houses the sacred linga or holy symbol of Lord Shiva and is also known as ‘The Temple of Living Beings’. This pseudonym is well served by the holy cows that stride through the crowds with casual grace and the myriad of monkeys suspended from the cliff-hung branches and dancing to and fro across the river on their own private set of stones just upstream from the human congregations.
The beautiful Pashupatinath Temple also serves as a backdrop for the public, open-air Hindu cremations that take place on the Ghats of the Bagmati River. The river is considered sacred because it eventually flows into the Ganges River in India, ultimately reaching the holy city of Varanasi. A bridge divides the royal site upriver, where the bodies are first blessed, from the cremation pyres downriver.
My first corpse
It seems odd that, at the ripe old age of 43 I was able to claim that I’d never seen a human corpse. British attitudes towards death are rather closed. My family had always chosen cremation, but had stuck with closed casket ceremonies. So, death I had dealt with. Dead human bodies I had not.
On 13 April 2012 I encountered not just one, but two human corpses. The first of these I found myself confronting somewhat accidentally through the lens of my camcorder. I was both fascinated and overcome by voyeuristic shame. But I kept recording. I don’t know how I should feel about this at all. After all, the Nepalese carrying out the ceremony had no concerns whatsoever about the public nature of their grief. They simply accept the tourists gawping at them and taking photographs from across the river as part of the scenery. So, I forgive myself in the knowledge that I filmed this event with the greatest of respect and with no other intention than to honour the departed, her family, and the entire Nepalese outlook on death. The ceremony struck me as a mentally healthy, cleansing process.
A graceful Nepali exit
The Nepalese believe that a single soul lives 84 million times, improving with each cycle. Therefore, death is not considered a sad thing.
Traditionally, the dead are wrapped in yellow or white cloth and special care is taken to ensure the deceased will be a suitable offering to the fire god. A piece of iron or a weapon is kept with the corpse to repel evil spirits and no impure objects, animals or people may come in contact. The family do not eat, drink or work until the corpse is burned but this takes place as soon as possible to ensure ghosts do not enter the dead body.
The funeral procession must have an odd number of participants who dress simply and are bareheaded. The deceased is carried with head backwards symbolizing the south – the abode of the ancestors. Women do not process traditionally but they return before the body is burned.
The body is placed by the riverbank upstream in front of the temple and the Shaddha or Pinda dan is carried out. The eldest son, bare-chested but dressed in a dhoti, takes a purifying bath in the river. He reveals the face of the corpse to the sun. The ancestors are then invoked and water released from his hand before a food offering is given. Usually cooked in silver or copper vessels and placed on a banana leaf or in cups made of dried leaves, the food includes kheer (a type of sweet rice and milk) , lapsi (a sweet porridge made of wheat grains), rice, dal (lentils), the vegetable of spring bean (guar) and a yellow gourd (pumpkin).
The men then carry the body across the bridge downstream to the cremation site.
The cremation pyre is first purified with river water and cow dung. The eldest son or chief mourner walks around the pyre three times keeping the body to his left. While walking he sprinkles purifying water and ghee onto the pyre from a vessel. The corpse is then laid with its feet facing southwards, so that the dead person can walk towards the ancestors. The body is then set alight to allow the soul to be set free and the ashes thrown into the river so they might begin their journey to the sacred Ganges, back to the gods.
I found myself marvelling at the simple efficiency of it all. Sad only that, due to excessive pollution, the holy river upon which these departing souls rely is now little more than a shallow trickle of dirty green gloop.
Lesson no. 4: to keep recording or not?