I’ll do Bhaktapur (Hindu temple and markets) and Nagarkot (mountain views) a little later. This one I need to get out of my system. First, this is my third trip to Nepal and I was told to make the trip to Pashupatinath each time, and have, I admit it, avoided it. It’s tough subject matter. But Nepal, as I see it, is often like listening to your three favorite songs at high volume all at once. Beautiful, energizing, fantastic and interesting, but also leads to overload and confusion in parsing. The three songs of course, are: Culture, Mountains and People. Pashupatinath is the largest Hindu temple in Kathmandu, and it’s where they perform open air cremations (Warning for sensitive material to come!).
Here I have to give AC, my guide on the last 2 visits, a compliment. He is expert at knowing exactly what to expose you to and what to avoid for the best possible experience on your Nepal trip. When I asked if we could go to Pashupatinath in the past, he gently sighed, curled his upper lip, and offered several other options as distractions. “Let’s go get momos…. The press meeting is now…. Let’s get out of the heavy city air and see the mountains.” You can’t argue with any of those and he more than sufficiently delivered on all of those offers. He’s a great guide. But beyond that, his sense was exactly right. All of those things are more enjoyable for people like me. So here we are at visit three and I spoke it out loud to my host, so here we are at Pashupatinath.
It was a hot day and we were there mid afternoon, so Danu, who also curled his lip when I mentioned it, maintains his love for mountain weather and gets hot in temps above 70 degrees F. So he led us in, then stuck to the shady corners and let me explore alone.
On the approach two Sadus (holy men) sat in a nook along the stone walk that flanks the Bagmati River. Neither of them showed their faces (which are usually elaborately painted), but I saw from 20 yards off that they had seen me (blond, fair, with a camera – I stick out a little bit here) just as I saw them. I paused, turned to Danu and said, “They’re going to ask money for a photo, yes?” Yes. I don’t like posed photos. I like to be somewhat invisible in my photography and see the people and places without my influence (a challenge for me here, for parenthetical reasons stated above). I attempted to walk by, and expected little more than a gentle “Namaste” in return for showing my smiling face and paired palms before my camera. To my surprise, it made no difference.They both reached out while covering their faces, “Money for photo, money for photo!” Not the experience I generally expect from religious leaders. I walked on.
The near side of the river is for onlookers, perhaps family members of the deceased. The far side is for pyres, and a bridge connects the two sides in the middle of the temple.
We headed up some stone steps under the shade of large trees, for a more distant vantage point, and to capture a bit more of the lay of the land. The paths are flanked by small stone huts, each with a Sadu inside. Yes they treated me similarly to the others, even when I wasn’t pointing my camera anywhere near them.
So rather than engage, I put on my telephoto lens and stood on the periphery, feeling much like a sniper. Not long after that, the sales ladies approached me, hawking their wares: necklaces and trinkets, issuing them on me at close range (pushing their shoulders into mine, attempting to put jewelry on me) in their best English. Not exactly the demeanor you expect at a funeral. But it is what it is. After 10 solid “no thank yous” I quit answering and attempted to photograph something across the river. “It is free to look! Look, look, very pretty, good for mother gift!” at which point Pasang, who had been shadowing me, had enough and said casually, “uni yo cahan dainah” – “She does not want it.” Commit that one to memory, boys and girls. I never tire of the shock on Nepali’s faces when I (blond, fair, remember?) speak to them in their language.
As they prepared the deceased across the river, I asked Danu if they submerge or float them down the holy river. “They dip them in up to their thumbs to see if they wake up.” I gave him the confused look that may be on your face right now. “Sometimes they do.” He said, deadpan. Then followed with, “That’s what they say…” Danu is a great guide too.
Anyway, hopefully that gives a little impression of my encounter with Pashupatinath. The sniper photos are below, and do include imagery that might be uncomfortable. On the flip side, it’s probably quite an honor to have your family member’s funeral on the largest holiday of the year.
Oh, and there were monkeys.