Located on the banks of the Bagmati River in the eastern part of Kathmandu, is the Pashupatinath Temple, one of the most significant Hindu temples in the world. As non-Hindus, we were mot allowed inside; instead, we took our time to walk along the river banks, which are lined with steps called ghats. These ghats are immensely versatile; you can either use them to take a bath or to cremate your loved ones. It just so happened that two cremations were going on while we were there: one was in its late stages and the other was just beginning.
It's hard not to feel morbid and intrusive as you watch somebody else's relative being reduced to ashes, but the cremations are open to the public, and so, we stayed. There were animals roaming freely on the grounds: monkeys, cows, stray dogs and cats. There were Sadhu men with long, white dreadlocks, sporting Columbia fleece jackets, selling themselves to any tourist with a camera--like me-- as holy men. There was an old man lost in meditation, children playing in the waters of the river, and an impossibly orange sun sinking rapidly into Kathmandu: an atmosphere of humanity clashing with ancient traditions and the environment.
The Hindu cremation goes like this: Next to the river there is a hospital where Hindus go to die. The idea is not to die at the hospital, but to be taken to the river--when death is imminent-- to draw one's last breath on its banks, for it is believed that those who die looking at the sacred river go straight to heaven. After the person dies, the body is rubbed with an ointment and wrapped in a layer of white, unseamed gauze: a shroud. Then four barefooted relatives transport the body to the ghat on a makeshift bamboo bed. After arriving at the appointed ghat, the deceased is laid down on a rectangular stone slab on the bank of the river called the Brahma Naal. This little nook receives--through a tunnel--the water and milk offerings left for the Shiva lingam inside the main temple. Then, the body is covered with a white or yellow cloth. The relatives splash some water in the mouth of the deceased to smooth his/her journey to the afterlife.
Later, the deceased is taken to a funeral pyre, which is decorated with different types of flowers. The continuous use of wood for cremations and the plumes of toxic smoke generated, which have hovered over Kathmandu for centuries, are taking a toll on the environment. So much so, that the Nepalese Government is about to pass a law banning this ancient practice and replacing the cremation ghats with electric ovens.
It's not a show, but it's not a private matter either. The funeral pyre can be observed from two bridges, the stone-steps, and the balconies on the opposite side. The dead and the mourning are in plain view.
As is customary, the daughters of the deceased are not allowed to attend the funeral and only the male relatives of the dead gather around the body.
Here is a distraught man. He walks around the pyre, crying, his shoulders rising and falling. I don't know if the man is the son or the husband of the deceased. I look at him from across the river, study his face closely and decide that I'm looking at a husband, a widower, a man who is about to eat his meals, go to bed, and wake up alone. As local tradition dictates, he walks around the pyre three times, torch in hand, and just when he is about to set his wife ablaze, he stumbles, he does't seem to be able to bring himself to light the fire, to turn his wife into ashes. But he does, eventually. He stands behind his wife, places the torch, still dripping ghee, on her neck, and sets her ablaze. If they were wealthy, he'd put sandalwood in the pyre, which gives off a sweet smell. But they are not. The air fills with thick smoke and I'm grateful I can't smell anything.
I had my mother cremated. I am acquainted with fire and loss. But watching the one you love being engulfed and consumed by fire, witnessing the reduction of the body you once hugged and loved to ashes, requires blind faith, determination, and a fierce belief in the afterlife, all of which I lack.
Later on, while my husband and I are back in the comfort of our hotel, the fire will have consumed this man's wife to a mound of charred bits, he will place what's left of her in a copper vessel, which he'll bury in a sacred ground near their home, and he'll start saving, for in one year from today, he'll have to dig out the urn and be expected to take it to India to throw it into the Ganges, the holy river. But somehow, I suspect, he won't be able to afford the expense of such a luxurious sendoff, and urn and remains will sink right here in this very river. The river of death.