This morning, we arranged for a car and driver, along with a guide, whose name is Ganga, through the travel agency at the hotel. For a seven hour tour, which costs $100 not including admission fees, we will visit four sites today – Bhaktapur Durbar Square and town, Kathmandu Durbar Square, Pashupatinath, and Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple). We will begin at 11:00am, and end at about 6:30pm.
Ganga is a Nepali gentleman in his mid-sixties who has been guiding tourists for over thirty five years, after a brief career in the Nepali army. He has a wonderfully unobtrusive manner, and he also loves to recount the stories and legends surrounding places we are to visit. Despite our initial reservations about using any guide, Ganga is an excellent choice for us, and having a car and driver available on call is much easier than hailing and negotiating with a series of taxis over the course of a day. And also much more comfortable, as taxis in the Valley are tiny Suzuki subcompacts, cramped and usually in terrible condition – not really suitable for longer drives.
Our first stop of the day is Swayambhunath, one of the oldest religious sites in all of Nepal, dating from the fifth century A.D. Throughout Nepal, many religious sites such as this one are shared by both Buddhists and Hindus, although one or the other religion might be considered the predominant one, and Swayambhunath, revered by both, is considered a Buddhist site.
According to the ancient story, the entire Kathmandu valley was once filled with an enormous lake, out of which grew a lotus. The valley came to be known as Swayambhu, meaning “Self-Created.” The name comes from an eternal self-reliant flame (svyaṃbhu) over which a stupa was later built.
Swayambhunath is also known as the Monkey Temple, as there are holy monkeys living in parts of the temple and surrounding grounds. They are holy because Manjushree, the bodhisattva of wisdom and learning, was raising up the hill which the Swayambhunath Temple now stands on. He was supposed to leave his hair short but he made it grow long and head lice grew. It is said that his head lice transformed into these monkeys.
The Bodhisatva Manjushri had a vision of the lotus at Swayambhu and traveled there to worship it. Seeing that the valley could be a good place for a settlement, and to make the site more accessible to human pilgrims, Manjushri cut a gorge at Chobhar. The water drained out of the lake, leaving the valley in which Kathmandu now lies. The lotus was transformed into a hill and the flower become the Swayambhunath stupa.
The monkeys at Swayambhunath are a far more docile lot than those we saw in both India and China, who can be quite aggressive in defending their territory, or in going after any food you might be holding or carrying with you. Perhaps they are much better cared for than their counterparts, but I learned once again never to judge a book by its cover, or a monkey by the actions of its relatives!
Our final stop of the day is located on the banks of the Bagmati River, the same river that flows through the Chobhar Gorge. Pashupatinath is Nepal’s holiest Hindu temple dedicated to the God Shiva, and also one of the world’s most significant Temples dedicated to Shiva in his aspect as Pashupati, “the lord of the animals.” For more than 350 years, priests performing the services at this temple have come directly from south India, and cremations have been performed here according to the Hindu belief that the Bagmati is a holy tributary of the Ganges River.
Pashupatinath itself consists of a two-story pagoda style temple surrounded by a sprawling compound of buildings on both sides of the river, all of which are off limits to non-Hindus. However the funereal ghats, divided by the small walking bridge over the Bagmati into a free and paid cremation section, are accessible to everyone, and this is what we have come to see.
The Bagmati River’s source is high in the Himalayas, but by the time it has reached Kathmandu, it has become quite polluted with agricultural run-off and human waste of every type. According to Nepalese Hindu tradition, the dead body must be dipped three times into the Bagmati river before cremation. The chief mourner (usually the first son) who lights the funeral pyre must take a holy river-water bath immediately after cremation. Many relatives who join the funeral procession also take a bath in the Bagmati River or sprinkle the holy water on their bodies at the end of cremation. The River is considered to purify the people spiritually, despite its putrid brown color and floating debris; I’ve heard and seen film showing much the same about the Ganges, but I hadn’t seen anything like this for myself until now.
The area around the ghats are jammed with people, almost all of them family members or friends of the dead being cremated – there are very few observers, just participants here. There is one main entrance to both the free and the paid sides of the river ghats, and there are arriving corpses, shrouded in white and carried by mourners, every few minutes. The many corpses bound for a free cremation turn to the left side of the bridge spanning the river; those few paying for their ceremony turn right. And not just corpses…
I see (and photograph) a body being carried in on a hospital stretcher, partially covered in white, but obviously still alive, judging by the movement of the arm hanging off the stretcher. It’s also clearly still alive because the people carrying the stretcher are also carrying the IV bottles that are still connected to the person’s arm! Ganga tells me that the Hindus believe that the sooner after death a body is cremated, the easier its passage to reincarnation, so once a hospital doctor says there is no longer any hope, the family brings the person, even though he or she is still alive, to Pashupatinath to be cremated.
I accepted viewing the cremations themselves with equanimity. I believe that the burning or burial of a body is not much more than the disposal of a husk that no longer has any usefulness. I also believe that the spiritual masters of the Far East have long been able to take their bodies with them after they leave the earthly realm, so those being cremated today are simply fulfilling another step in their spiritual evolution.
I have not reported on my visits to the Durbar Squares of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur because the visual delights to be found in both of these locations are similar to those in Patan, recounted in yesterday’s entry.