It’s the year 2066 in Nepal. I’ve been trying to find out why, but the handful of people that I have asked on the streets of its capital, Kathmandu, all come up with different reasons. So I give up my half-hearted attempt to find out why and just go with it. Anyway, for the most part the country runs with the internationally used Gregorian calendar and it makes no difference to me what year it is. Most days I need to ask my six-year-old what day it is, let along what year it might be.
But today is a Tuesday and I know that because I am busily trying to work out what I can fit into my remaining three days left in the country. Over six weeks my son and I have seen more of Nepal than most of its countrymen and women, but our last ten days are spent based in the Puknajol district of Kathmandu. The bustling tourist streets in the Thamel district, selling prayer wheels and other Tiebetan Buddhist-influenced ‘souvenirs’ or the latest-release burnt DVDs are a five minute walk away. We remain not far from the action which reminds me of a chilled-out version of Bangkok’s pumping ‘Khao San Road’ or Delhi’s vibrant ‘Paharganj’ district – yet we are just enough away to miss the noise from the nightly bars and the various persistent shop keepers keen to sell you anything from yak cheese to a pashmina shawl.
Kathmandu possesses the usual charms and delights of Asian culture without the ‘in your face’ attitude of other Asian cities. A remarkable religious blend of Hinduism and Tiebetan Buddhism (my Nepali friend said he was both Hindu and Buddhist when I asked him) influences the people and culture. Nepal, I have decided, is a gentler version of Indie. Devout caste-based Hinduism, which is the essence of everything in India – from social norms to political violence and government legislation (despite its secularism) – does not seem as obvious to me in Nepal.
People don’t appear to be horrified when they discover that I’m divorced and travelling solo with a child. Instead (and unlike my Indian experiences too years earlier) the reactions are perhaps more apologetic for causing me embarrassment. Others, particularly young women, are intrigued. But I’m yet to admit that there was no husband to begin with and my motive for withholding this gem is uncertain. I think it’s possible that I don’t want to upset anyone, which is a weird rationale.
Over breakfast I make the decision to start the morning visiting the sacred Bagmati River at Pashupatinath, in East Kathmandu. Pashupatinath is a place of pilgrimage for Hindus from all over the world, and home to Nepal’s holiest and most important Hindu temple. The temple is dedicated to Shiva – the God of Destruction, but here he is honoured as Pashupati, ‘Lord of the Animals’. Other temples and shrines adorn the bank of the river, but it is the centuries-old Pashupatinath temple that most come to revere and it is only accessible to Hindus. The other reason why huge crowds gather on a daily basis is that there are several cremation ghats – large stone blocks next to the river – used for open air ceremonies. When I read this in my guidebook I’m instantly fascinated.
There is a small entrance fee of a few Australian dollars for adults, and for children there is no cost. Like every other day we have had so far in Kathmandu, the weather graces us with a pleasantly warm winter sun and today it is accompanied by a brilliant blue sky. Against this colour is the faint outline of the white craggy Himalayan peaks which loom on the horizon – visible today as the smog has shifted and there are few clouds.
The ‘guide’ who attaches himself to us within seconds proves to be a valuable source of information, even though I was content to wander around on my own and take everything in at my own time. I close my guidebook which I’d found to be pretty inept for the majority of our six weeks travel so far and resign myself to the fact that this stranger was determined to be our guide for the day, and there was not a lot I could do about it. He pointed out the small stong lingas – or phallic statues which represent Shiva that were scattered around the concrete area we stood on, overlooking the river. With destruction comes regeneration and Shiva represents both qualities, hence the lingas (accompanied by round stone yonis which represent the female reproductive organ) everywhere to represent his divine power.
So small were some that we only became aware of one when my son rested his foot upon it. This drew shouts from two nearby Sadhus – hold men – who were lazing bare chested in the sun nearby. Their faces were caked in dried white paint and plastered upon their foreheads was an untidy splatter of red sandalwood paste, mixed with water to form a bloody-looking tika to represent the third eye. Their hair and beards were long and matted with impressive dreadlocks, and their concern (quite rightly) was that we were touching sacred objects. It wasn’t until later that we were met with the pestering ‘pretend’ Sadhus who make quite a bit of money out of tourists by posing for photographs. “A real Sadhu,” explained the guide, “does not ask for money. He lives off donations alone.”
The concrete ledge we stood upon was perhaps ten metres above the river. To escape the wrath of the Sadhus, we made our way closer to the edge and took our first look at the Bagmati River. It was a pretty unimpressive sight. In parts the river had completely dried up and had been diverted by sandbags to ensure that at least some of it continued to trickle downstream. Apparently in monsoon season it is a mightier force and the water climbs higher up the banks. But today it is ankle deep in most parts and is littered with trash, and – so I’m told – contaminated with sewerage coming from upstream.
My attention turns towards the white and grey smoke that I suddenly realise is billowing our way from below. The wind has changed and our ‘guide’ points out the cremation taking place below. I don’t notice any particularly foul smells like I was expecting. There is a smoky smell from the fire with a small hint of incense and I’m not sure if it’s coming from the cremation pyre or if it’s just in the air burning here as it does everywhere in Kathmandu.
“Oh!” I exclaim, almost as if this was something I saw everyday, “yep, I’m pretty sure I can see a skull.” Amongst the dwindling flames below I had definitely glimpsed part of a skull. My son heard me and demanded to know where it was. But it was not visible anymore as a professional burner had returned to the pyre with a fresh cart of wet straw and covered the half burnt body. Wet straw is used as it burns slower and ensured that the whole body is cremated. I’d say the wet straw is to blame also for the smoke which is by now covering us, and I wrap my face with a pashmina to avoid breathing what I am imagining are dead body particles from entering my airways. For some reason I don’t wish to offend our ‘guide’ by this fact, and out the corner of my mouth I attempt to tell my son to do his jumper up and cover his mouth with the collar. He’s too busy listening to the guide point out several other cremations in process to hear me – who, by the way, seems way too chirpy for this sort of work for my liking. Eventually though his jumper is covering his mouth, and soon he discovers a pair of monkeys nearby that he decides are more worthy of his attention than a couple of burning bodies.
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