Growing up, I had a grounded, yet simple church experience, free from flare. We went to Sunday services where I’d take off to Sunday School to color pictures of baby Jesuses (usually blue) and listen to lessons about how to treat others how I’d want to be treated; the monthly church dinner or, weather permitting, an outdoor picnic. There was also the annual Christmas Pageant where I’d barrow the old man’s cane from across the street and play a rough-around-the-edges shepherd who took no crap from his sheep, let alone a Pharisee. However, there was one year where they decided to emasculate the boys by making all the five year-olds, regardless of sex, dress as angels. These weren’t cool angels from Hollywood trillers, but just us sitting there in white dresses with cardboard wings attached. I assure you, it was the only time in my life when there was a halo hovering over my head.
For the church services themselves, the rituals were deliberate, yet innocuous with Wonderbread-ish bread for “body” and grape juice in a plastic thimble for “blood.” Services were exactly one hour with about 15-20 minutes of a sermon–usually just a simple “life application” lesson. It was pretty straight forward and very middle class; no window dressing, not exactly high octane and this was a good thing. I questioned and wrestled with these notions on a metaphysical level while I was in college, but life has been pretty easy for me: stable family, good friends, no major tragedies, and never really having to worry about whether there’d be a roof over my head or if someone was going to hunt me down and put a shank in my back in school. Mainly, my reconciliation as a man to my Creator has been one of being grateful, while at the same time checking myself as a human being towards my fellow man and myself. Through this belief, honor and self-respect have become my biggest core values. As a mantra it works, too, but it fits in awkwardly behind my all-time favorite mantra, “Drink a lot of whiskey and date loose chicks.”
We spent the better part of the day in an ancient town outside of Katmandu called Bhaktapur and the ride back was like breathing straight from the exhaust stack of a paper mill. Our cabbie dropped us off at a temple just outside of the Kathmandu airport called Pashupatinath. He offered to hire us a decent guide, but most of the English speaking men are looking to turn a buck out of collusion, so I was dubious that my best interests would intersect with his. I refused his offer assuming I could handle myself, so he just put his head back on the car seat and was snoring away before I could get my second leg out of the door.
It wasn’t long as before we were walking past the now very familiar stands selling the normal tourist junk which was at every other popular destination. As we paid our entrance fee to continue down the road to the temple, a very friendly, young Nepalese man named Binod walked up about two paces behind me, making himself known, yet giving me enough space to breathe. I knew that he would be looking for me to enlist his services, but he had a calm and honest vibe about him and I figured I’d cut to the chase and offered to pay him to show me around.
It took all of five minutes for my entire upbringing to come crashing headfirst into the world I was visiting. As we walked towards the temple alongside the Bagmati River, I saw long trail of white smoke billowing from the other side of the river. As we got closer, it I saw that the something that was burning was actually a someone.
“Bagmati is a holy river. It empties into the Holiest of all Hindu rivers, the Ganges. Here is where they come to burn the bodies of those who have passed along. Hindus are required to cremate the bodies of their dead loved ones before sundown the next day.”
I had a strange, yet reverent detachment viewing the black charred mass across the river. While it seems macabre, it was actually calm and, because they burn the bodies on a bed of sandalwood, there was actually a pleasant, incense-like smell to it.
“You can take a picture if you want.”
“Are you sure that it’s ok?”
I felt odd turning on the power to my camera, however, I was soon snapping away as Binod explained what was happening.” In this case,” he said pointing to the burning body below, “it is a man who has passed. You can tell because there are no women at the ceremony. When a man dies, no women are allowed to attend the cremation, however, they are allowed if another woman dies. ”
He continued after taking a drag from his newly lit cigarette, “After the body is finished burning, the family will go over to those white buildings. They will stay there for thirteen days, after which they will come out wearing white, unlike in the West where you wear black. They will wear white for the next year in celebration for hope their loved one will have a better reincarnation. For the next year, they cannot drink alcohol or eat meat if a man dies. If a woman dies, they cannot drink alcohol, eat meat or drink milk.”
As he was speaking, another body was being prepared on the ghat few spots up the river.
“The bodies are completely naked under their wrappings as we believe that since you come into the world naked, you also leave the world naked. The bodies are wrapped in white and orange: white symbolizes purity, while the orange is the color of peace.”
A man reached down and placed something in the mouth of the body that was placed on top of the sandalwood alter.
“The fire is always started at the mouth. From the mouth, life begins with breath. It is also where a person speaks truths and sometimes lies. The priest prepares the mouth by filling it with holy water, butter and camphor. A wick is placed in the mouth where, if is a man, it is lit by the oldest son. If it is a woman, the youngest son will light the fire. Once the fire is started, it takes about 4 hours for a body to burn all the way through.”
We walked further up the bank of the river and he pointed down towards two ghats that were at the very top.
“In Nepal, even though the caste system is outlawed by the government, it is still practiced in culture. The higher up you are in the caste system, the farther up the river you are cremated. The very last slab is reserved for the Royal Family. Back in 2001, when Prince Dipendra massacred eleven of his family members with a machine gun, they were all cremated here in one day.”
A few boys were digging in the shin deep water next to the ghats of the noble classes. They were looking for coins or leftover valuables from previous cremations.
After that, we went to the top of the hill overlooking the river. Here, there were a number of perfectly symmetrical shrines where people can rub the statues and pray for fertility.
In case you need some visual aids, there are some suggestions on “how to” as well.
Hanging out on the top of the hill were several Hindu holy men called Sadhus. This one allowed Angelique to take his picture for a small “donation.”
“The Sadhus have given up three goals of the Hindu life: enjoyment, practical objectives and duty. They live in the caves above the river and only live off of donations from others. Even though they have given up ‘enjoyment’ they are the only ones in Nepal who can smoke hashish legally.” Binod then let out a wry smile, “They say it is a religious obligation; however during the 1960’s and 70’s many American hippies came out here because of their kinship to the wandering, yet mind altering lifestyles of the Sadhu.”
I thought to myself that they probably also shared a common commitment to minimalism in hygiene.
The view from the top provided a good look at Pashupatinath Temple from above, a huge structure with two gold pagodas.
Binod also pointed out a church that Mother Theresa set up to take care of orphans as well as a hospice where families can take their loved ones who are ready for the next life.
“Sometimes there are cases where people who come here to die, actually get better. If this is the case, the person leaves the hospice with a new name as they are a new person.”
To get a closer look, we hiked down the hill, walked across the bridge and strolled up the front of the temple. As I walked amongst the locals, it was strange how everyone ignored the burning bodies that were below. There is a funeral home just a few blocks from my house and I feel a sting that requires a slight bow of quiet reverence for what is happening each time I pass a funeral that’s in progress.
I conveyed these thoughts and feelings to Binod and he responded, “Of course we are reverent during this process, but for us, the person isn’t ‘gone,’ they are hopefully moving on to a better reincarnation.”
Pointing towards the inside of the Temple, he continued his tour, “Inside is a black four-headed deity of Lord Siva, who is also the destroyer, however here is depicted in a more peaceful tone as ‘Lord of the Animals.’ Inside is also is a giant gold statue of Siva’s Nandi Bull. Only the Hindu can go inside. You cannot go inside because you eat meat.” I said nothing of the leather bags and shoes worn by the women walking in and out of the Temple.
Binod and I walked back towards the entrance where I met back up with Angelique. She was being harassed by a much more aggressive and less savvy “guide.” After following her around and being rude, he demanded payment from her and even offered to come by our hotel to collect the remaining payment for his services. I stepped in a said no such arrangements would be made and that he wouldn’t be getting what he thought was acceptable payment. Binod just smiled and he walked us towards our taxi.
“Good move. That guy is a little crazy. You never want to tell them where you are staying because he would show up and do so with a few friends.”
We shook hands and headed back to the hotel after our last full day before leaving for Tibet. At first, I initially thought that I was experiencing a collision of two diametrically opposed religious worlds. On the surface, this is true: the flare and ritual with which the Nepalese did things was far different from what I grew up with, especially with respect to views of the dead. And there are many deeply cultural things that I could never get used to, like the technically illegal caste system. However, from talking with Binod, I was able to see another person with a deep passion and strong belief in his religion, yet takes a more pragmatic view towards the excess and literalism that comes with some of the more fundamentalist elements of it. In that sense, we were very similar. I left wondering how many Nepalese were more like Binod versus the latter. As I would see less than 24-hours later in Tibet, the entire way of looking at this question would be severely challenged.