KATHMANDU, NEPAL – burning bodies in public

Life in Kathmandu happens on the street. I expected that. I wasn’t quite prepared to witness a public cremation on my first day in town. The Hindu temple at Pashupati area is a favourite tourist attraction here. It’s not particularly beautiful as temples go, but tourists come here to see the monkeys scooting around, to photograph the painted holy hermits, and to see bodies burned.

It took our group from World Expeditions (I’m their guest for a nice trek) about two minutes to see our first monkey robbery, fortunately nothing we’d have to call American Express about. The victim of the mugging was a lady selling drinks and packets of peanuts, a couple of which the monkey made off with, to the delight of all but the vendor.

Happy and Holy (and $12 richer)

I was personally robbed by a holy man. These dreadlocked gentlemen hang about on the hill above the temple, dressed in saffron robes or loin cloths, their faces painted with red and yellow ochre. They may spend some time each day thinking holy thoughts, but they haven’t entirely given up hope of getting a few worldly possessions. “Photo-money, where you come from?” is their chanted mantra.

I saw it as a sort of street theatre so cheerfully forked out 1000 Nepali rupees for photographic rights, thinking in my innocence that that was about USD1. (It’s closer to USD10). For that sort of money I expect buskers to do an impressive song and dance. Perhaps these modern eremites will one day read my blog. If they do, (and I mean you, the two holy men first on the left as you go up the path) I expect a reply detailing some findings on the meaning of life.

On the bank opposite a small funeral procession arrived, carrying a bright red coffin. A group of about twenty men followed by two women in red saris, stood around for a while chatting, then opened the coffin and pulled out a body, wrapped in a white sheet.

Final photos of the loved one

They lugged it down to the river, where they left it with its feet in the water. An older gentleman was assisted down the bank to scoop up water and pour it on the eyes of the body. The face was now exposed. A woman, presumably his wife. The male family members all took out mobile phones and ritually took snaps of the departed. We tourists respectfully entered into the spirit of the ceremony and took snaps of our own.

The body was then strewn with flowers, wrapped in orange cloth,and carried to the funeral pyre further down the bank. Meanwhile a young boy climbed into the coffin and tried it out as a boat, paddling it along the river to join the next stage of the ceremony.

A used coffin makes a useful canoe

The widower took a burning lamp and walked three times around the pyre. A helpful Nepali gentleman standing beside me explained it to me. ‘Three times around the body. Once for Brahma the creator, once for Vishnu the preserver, once for Shiva the destroyer.’ ‘Thank you.’ ‘Where you come from? Australia? You have some spare Australian coins? I love to collect Australian coins…and euros…’

The pyre was burning, a stiff white arm protruding from under the sheet. The grieving family appeared to have lost interest and our bus was waiting for us.

I’d like to leave my readers with a comment about what I learned today about the meaning of life and death, but it will take me a while to think about it. And to load the photos onto this post.

More when I next find an internet cafe…

13 Comments

Filed under Hiking, Himalayas

13 responses to “KATHMANDU, NEPAL – burning bodies in public

  1. David Barrett

    Richard,
    A few “keys” in your observations which are clues to the meaning of life.
    1. the sadhus wanting the money
    2. taking photos of a dead relative on a mobile phone at a cremation
    3. Using a coffin as a canoe
    4. Being asked for money from one of the relatives.

    Maybe something to do with respect, or lack thereof, for the dead, or maybe “dead is dead” and get on with it, or money IS important. Keep thinking and please give us your thoughts.

  2. That is an eventful start, Richard!
    I would say the holy men gave you even more than their findings on the meaning of life. They had you experience it yourself in that intriguing funeral procession – the creator, the preserver and the destroyer all in one! And with that they made you think about the meaning of life and death! How much more does one want for ten bucks? :)

  3. Fascinating post, Richard. Good on ya.

  4. It is nice to travel in this place it make sense in your life peace of mind….

  5. Thanks for the comments, David, John, Mina and Ralph,
    Replying from an internet cafe with sticky keyboard with bits of paper stuck on the letters to tell me which is which. More when next I get to an internet cafe (which could be in 10-12 days). Thanks for your visits!

  6. Very inspiring, i wonder why i didn’t get that idea. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Good Post. I went to the creamation site in Kathmandu as well. My blog is
    http://www.theothersideofthecoconut@wordpress.com

    Check it out.

  8. Ha …yeah, uuuuhhh, I think I gave those guys 10 rupees each when I was there. That sucks, but, you live and learn I guess. I actually went back a few days after and took some more shots and they didn’t even want money, but I did spend some time with them. I think if you just pass by and take a shot, they are gonna try and get you for more…
    Good post, John

    http://wanderinground.wordpress.com/2011/03/02/the-boys/

  9. Great webpage by Elizabet Pechacek

  10. Pashupatinath sadhus = cheaters ( well, the most colourful ones, those who are on the hill opposite to the temple). But who is to be blamed ? As long as they find westerners foolish enough ( or innocent enough), they are right to cheat the tourists. Before giving, learn about the country where you are, be more sensible.

  11. Jenn

    I was so happy to read this post! i just recently visited Nepal for work and this was the first place my guide took me. I was so overcome with a confusion about the experience that I could not eloquently explain it… I’m not sure this does either but it makes me feel like my experience was not alone!

    • I’m sure it’s a popular spot to take western tourists, Jenn, and if we can’t quite articulate what we’re learning, at least we’re experiencing something different and seeing how others live their lives.

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