Hindu Cremation at Pashupati Temple Kathmandu

In my childhood days we used to go to Pashupati temple in Kathmandu, every Saturday. This huge temple complex, built in 5th century, is the most religious centre for Hindus in Nepal. ‘Baghmati’ means ‘comming from tiger’s mouth’. On the banks of Baghamati, near Kathmandu, is Pashupatinath Temple and beside the temple is a place where soul meets its destiny – an open cremation ground.

The legend of Pashupatinath temple is rooted in Mahabharata. Pandavas wanted to repent for their sins of killing their kin and Brahmins and went to Kashi for Lord Shiva. Shiva, enraged by the dishonesty in the war, hid himself in Garwal in the form of a bull. Pandavas, in search of Shiva, went from Kashi to Garwal, where Bhim found a bull grazing in Gupt Kashi. Knowing that the bull is Shiva,  Bhim pulled him by his tail and hind legs and the bull reluctantly disappeared into ground beneath. Later his parts appeared in different places where Pandavas built temples. Kedarnath has hump, Tungnath is for arms, Madhyamaheshwar for navel, Rudranath for face and five heads at Pashupatinath. The Linga of Pashupati faces in four different directions to Tatpurusha, Ardhanarishwara, Sadyojata and Aghor whereas top faces towards Nirakar. A huge statue of a bull is also seated before main door of Pashupatinath Temple.

Beside the temple complex, flows Baghmati River, a sacred tributary of Ganges. Back in the 90s, its current was so strong that I feared drowning. Across the river there was a bridge from where cremation grounds were clearly visible. We were not the only anxious spectators, so many other tourists also gathered around, mostly westerners. They were more fascinated than us and we were more devoted than them. I can’t remember the number of bodies I have seen burnt in pyre before my eyes. But it was a startling revelation for a child.

The tour began by going to main temple, twelve Jyotirlinga statues, ten-fifteen statues and reaching the cremation ground. Among several small Ghats, there was a special one. There was a monument-like structure, adorned with beautiful carvings and slanted roofs. Someone told me that this was Arya Ghat, reserved for minor royals and upper caste people. There were two corpses, wrapped in saffron cloth, tied to a bamboo stretcher. It appeared to me that these were among common folks.

Ordinary Cremation

The body is brought on bamboo ladder and is placed on a sloped stone on Baghmati bank called “Bramhanaal”. Soon, a priest washed the feet of corpses by dipping them three times in the water and cleaned face.  Then a conch is blown in straight rhythm. The conch should sound like a howl.  The body is taken to burning platform, where bed of logs is already made. It takes about 500kg wood to burn a body.  Several other offerings are also made to the body. The deceased was worshiped, adorned with marigold garlands, incense was burned and a few mantras were chanted.

Then the body is rotated above log bed as a symbol of offering to its creator.  Like the body the pyre is also given to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

All relatives walk around the body mostly three times.  Usually the eldest son, or any man from family or relatives performs the last rites. He carries the initial flame and circumambulates around the pyre bed of deceased.  Then dried rice straw is spread over the corpse. 10 to 12 kg butter of cow milk is placed between the corpse and logs.  A little camphor is placed in the mouth of dead body. Then this camphor is lit and then the rest of the body is burned.

How is cremation at Arya ghat different?

There is no difference in the treatment of deceased. The only difference is in the frills associated and the platform for pyre. The fire bed has four tall posts in each corner, adorned with orange cloth and garlands. On the top, a beautiful orange cloth piece is hung to umbrella the pyre. As Mukhagni or mouth fire is lit, trumpets are blown and final salutation band is played.

There is another Ghat for politicians. Relatives of rich and affluent deceased wear only white clothes in the crematorium.

Why to watch any of them?

It is true that Nepal has so much to offer that one would not think of visiting such a queer place. This place not important for its rites, but for the way these rites treat human body and soul. It is not only about process after death, but there is a white building near the Ghat, where people with little or no hope are brought to wait for death. Sometimes they die within hours and sometimes they wait even for two days. In rarest of rare cases they recover.

An important point is that this is the only Hindu open crematorium that allows photography from distance. Photography is not allowed at Manikarnika Ghat, India, the largest open Hindu crematorium. Pashupati is just 5 kms away from Kathmandu. Watching such scenes was not healthy for a child, but they indeed changed my perception about death process.

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