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.
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.
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.
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 It is an extremely controversial and outdated practice and is so rare it could almost be considered extinct.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.
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.”
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.