21 September 2009

Smoke, Sati, Sadhus and God: Pashupatinath

An aghori sadhu.

Ochres and roans and rusts mingle with the pervasive swirl of white and grey ash. The air smells of burning leaves, incense, the ever-present reek of urine and a thicker, much more meaty smell that is holding them all together, sealing them into the hazy, smoky air. The river is little more than a garbage choked stream slowly gurgling through the concrete embankments. It is this murky slice of water that separates the ancient Hindu temple of Pashupatinath with its holiest of holy cremation site and me, a tourist forbidden from sullying it.

Stinking, smoking, steaming life.

The river, the Bagmati, eventually meanders through the Himalayas and pokes out of the mountains in India where it joins the Mother Ganga – the fabled, great Ganges, lifeblood of the Hindu religion. The Bagmati has the prestigious honor of carrying the ashes of Nepal's faithful masses, or at least those who can afford the pyre's wood, down to meet the holy waters.

A man prepares for prayer with smoking pyres in the background.

Now it is the dry, cold Nepali winter and the river is at its smallest, but even the monsoons of the wet season do little to widen it – within these concrete walls it always stays. No matter what time of year it is that leaves us, the non-Hindu foreigners, remarkably close to the funeral pyres of Pushpatinath. At its narrowest I am no more than 20 metres from the smoldering mounds of straw, wood and corpses.

Washing dishes in the heavily polluted water, near the cremation sites.

From where I am standing I can see funeral rites taking place, bright yellow and pink flowers being set into the murky dribble of river. I can see a small girl washing metal thali dishes in the fetid water. I can also see a white dog, streaked an interminable grey by the ash, worrying at a piece of human bone as he tries to wrench it out of a softly smoking pile.

Ash streaked dog.

The abject and the sacred, the profane and the profound, the madness and the beauty.

On my side of the river are dozens of elaborately carved stone huts each bearing the images of Bhairavi, Shiva's most terrifying form who is especially popular in Nepal. These stone structures were once used for sati, the infamous and now-outlawed Hindu practice of widow-burning. A widow dons her wedding sari, breaks her bangles and throws herself onto the pyre to be immolated along with her deceased husband. It is an extremely controversial and outdated practice and is so rare it could almost be considered extinct. Those rare moments weigh on my mind as I trail my fingertips across the sati huts, envisioning the melting silk of a sari.

Jolly Old Sadhu, sitting in a sati hut.

On the base of a monument nearby I approach 2 sadhus, their sinewy bodies painted in white ash and bright tikka powder, their long dreadlocks curled around their heads. A sadhu is a Hindu holy man, a Shiva worshiper who abandons his family to become a wandering contemplative, steeping his brain in bhang (strong marijuana) and religion. Most of these men dress in bright orange and yellow, but a rare sect called the aghori paint their bodies in human ash, hovering near cremation sites to obtain it. They eat the ash, bones and flesh that they find out of human skull bowls – a gesture to say that “all paths, even the horrible, lead to God.”

Friendly guys, although cannibals and stoned out of their heads.

And what of God? Pashupatinath is a place where you can feel God, literally sense something – and is a place where you cannot decide if that is a good or bad thing.
Where death surrounds you, close and stinking and somehow fascinating.
Where life is strange and surreal and utterly foreign.
And where both seem so, so very close together, two halves of a whole.

Maybe that is the secret of this all.

Coffins stacked near the entrance of the complex.

A man carries straw to the pyres.


dave925 said...

Great post - really captures the feeling of this holy site.

"They eat the ash, bones and flesh that they find out of human skull bowls"

I had no idea! Maybe this is why they are so thin? I do know they appreciate (er, expect) baksheesh/tips when you get your photo taken with them.

Either in Nepal or India, someone warned me that many of the "holy men" are really just beggars, and that the way you could tell the authentic from the fake was the degree to which they are adorned with jewelery and paint. The more stuff they had on, the more likely they were just seeking attention, photos and donations.

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Kristin said...

Awesome writing and photos in this post. I will share it on my FB page with others. I can't believe that water. I've seen disgusting rivers in Costa Rica, Belize and Guatemala, but that one was truly the most horrid. How can people live in those conditions? But they do, don't they, as they have little choice.

Geeta said...

Wonderful moments captured on film. Nicely done.

Violet Dear said...

Thanks everyone - I really love this post (is that conceited? :) and I am glad you do too!