Life and Death at Pashupatinath Temple

Pashupatinath Temple is a lesson in superlatives. It’s the oldest Hindu temple in Nepal. It’s also the largest temple complex in the country, spanning both sides of the Bagmati River, the holiest site in Nepal, and one of the most sacred temples of the Hindu faith in the world.

Pashupanith Temple

Smaller temples, ashram, statues, carvings, and inscriptions surround the primary, pagoda-style temple. Just outside the main temple, along the banks of the river, are platforms upon which deceased followers are cremated. Once the body has burned, its ashes are swept into the water below. Cremations, and the rituals that surround them, are performed almost daily at the temple. While non-Hindus are not permitted entrance to the main temple itself, we were permitted to explore the grounds and either side of the river. The entire complex is ancient, stunningly beautiful, elaborately constructed, and completely unique. It was also incredibly challenging to visit.

Cremation platforms

The wind blowing over the river is hot. My imagination tells me its from the fires, but I think it’s mostly just the summer. It’s humid, too, so close to the water in the middle of monsoon season. The air is heavy and thick. There is every kind of person in the world shuffling towards the entrance. There are families with children, young men and women, crowds of elderly. There are the obviously sick and disfigured, coming to pray for healing. There are holy men with long beards and painted faces, and women in bright orange saris selling bracelets. There is incredible, heartbreaking poverty.

The crowds in front of the temple are maddening, but they thin out as we walk closer to the bridges that cross the river. The majority of people are there to worship, and tourists are ushered quickly to the side. There are flies everywhere, and all kinds of animals – cows, dogs, goats, monkeys. Most of them wander near the temple entrance, but the dogs are too feral looking for us to let Connor walk on his own, despite his protesting and toddler struggles.

family photo
Connor’s face for basically our entire day.

The day’s cremations are over, clouds of smoke hanging over the river the only reminder of the morning’s grief. The walkway along the river bank is deserted, and we pause there, looking back at the temple. It’s cooler here, barely, away from the crowds, and we have the luxury to look more closely, admiring the stone walls, the timeless arches and images. Despite its proximity to Kathmandu, there’s nothing of the bustling metropolis along the water’s edge. In the silence, the temple, the water, the ritual – it all feels ancient, somber, and dark, befitting of a place that sits at the crossroads between so much life and death.

We walk through the outskirts of the complex on our way out. Though the main section of the temple was untouched by the 2015 earthquake that struck Nepal, several of the outbuildings were not. Watching children pick bits of plastic out of a mountain of rubble, I remember that the Hindu god Pashupatinath, to whom the temple is dedicated, was believed to be an incarnation of Shiva, god of destruction.

Earthquake damage


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