Namaste, Nepal: Death at One’s Elbow

Today’s the day I see a dead body for the first time.

I’ve left Thamel and the centre of Kathmandu behind, and I’m off to Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley. My hotel has arranged a “taxi” for me, and I’ve asked if the driver can drop me off at the Pashupatinath temple and the Boudha Stupa along the way, since it’s not all that far to Bhaktapur. What turns up and whisks me away is a tiny little Bedford Rascal-esque van with windows, and I sling my suitcase into the back and fold my frame into the front seat and we trundle off, bouncing and jolting along the pitted and rutted roads around the city.

My driver, a lovely fellow, asks me about my trip and my plans. Everyone is interested to hear that I had been in Korea and that I’m taking time off to travel. I tell him I’m off to India after Nepal and he tells me that he spent 20 years driving there as a taxi driver. If you think the traffic in Kathmandu is bad, he tells me, just wait until you get to Delhi.

That’s to think about another day. For now, I’ve got more pressing things on my mind: wondering if I’m gonna end up seeing a dead body. Pashupatinath is a temple that is dedicated to Lord Shiva, and the complex is divided by the holy Bagmati river. It is believed by Hindus in Nepal that bathing in the river washes away all sins, and it is here that many Hindus want to be cremated. While not on the scale of Varanasi (more on that when I finally get around to writing up my trip to India), it’s widely considered to be the most holy temple in Nepal.

The “taxi” bumps and rattles down a road lined with shops selling flowers and trinkets and food. The driver deposits me and tells me it’s okay to go and see the funeral pyres, and I’m not sure that I really want to. I nod meekly and bumble away. I see temple complex so I head there first. It’s swarmed with families (or so I’m taking it) cooking food and having what looks like a picnic in the grounds. I’m not sure what it is they’re celebrating, but it looks interesting. I keep wandering around, looking at the buildings and not really getting what it is I’ve come to see. I wander back towards the way I came in, and then I see the entrance to a temple. As a non-Hindu, I’m not allowed in, so I drift about the entrance taking pictures and peeking through. 

I see some steps so I climb them. This takes me to the “backyard” of the complex, from where I can see the smoke rising from the funeral pyres, but I’ve no idea how to get to them. I’m alone with monkeys clambering the steps. I head back and out to the main street and find myself walking through a market. I’m not sure where I’m going, but I end up going towards a gate and then find myself in the main part of the temple where the river is. A horn blasts out and I see a dead body being carried through the crowd on a stretcher. It is covered in an orange shroud, so at least I don’t see the human it once was. It’s a little unnerving, to say the least.

There’s a bridge across the river, so I step on it and walk across. There are a lot of tourists groups and Nepalis here now. From the bridge you can see the funeral pyres burning along the banks of the river, but they are so far away that you can’t see any gory details. I keep walking across the bridge and climb up the steps at the other side. At the top of them are three friendly saddhus, who beckon me over for a photo shoot. Remembering my experience with the fake saddhu in Durbar Square, I politely decline, though I kind of wish I had been bold enough to take their pictures. 

I walk towards the crest of the hill and take a seat on one of the benches facing the temple side of the river. It is here that I see my first dead body. Well, parts of it at least. I eavesdrop on a tour guide who is explaining to his group that it is believed that the river washes all away all sins. A body shrouded in pink has been lain down with its feet dipped into the river. The guide explains that the feet are considered to be the dirtiest part of the body, and therefore this lady’s feet are being cleansed by the waters. To the side lies another body, this time shrouded in orange. Further to the left is a burning pyre, and I’m trying not to focus on it hard enough that I can make out if there are any body parts smoking away. I’m put in mind of something Victoria Wood said when she asked about what she thought about the British:

“Well, they’re just so unemotional, aren’t they, the British? I mean, in India, when the man dies his wife flings herself wailing upon the funeral pyre. In Britain, the wife rolls her sleeves up and says, ‘Right – seventy-two baps, Connie. You slice, I’ll spread.’”

I move on now, back to the “taxi” and on to the Boudhanath temple, which is one of the largest Bhuddist stupas in the world. It’s only a short trundle from Pashupatinath, and we’re there in five minutes. The site is surrounded by a courtyard, which gives it a strange, medieval feeling in my mind. There are shops and restaurants inside, and at one point there is a large viewing platform that all the tourists can go and stand on. Mindful of what Shiva taught me yesterday, I begin to walk clockwise around the stupa. The two large eyes peer down from whatever angle you look at it, reiterating what I learned yesterday about them symbolising the all-seeing nature of Bhudda.

I’m taken with the prayer flags. A chap is tying them to the stupa, and they are hung all around. The colours are vibrant and interesting, and I’m trying to remember what Shiva told us that the colours represent. Through the magic of googling I can now tell you that the colours go from left to right in a specific order: blue, white, red, green, and yellow. They represent the five elements, with blue symbolising the sky and space, white symbolising the air and wind, red symbolising fire, green symbolising water, and yellow symbolising earth. I buy a small pack of them from the tourist shop for 100 rupees – a third of the price that was being asked for in Thamel, just as Shiva said. I’m taking pictures of the flags on the stupa when for some reason I attempt a selfie on my camera – I usually do them on the phone. A Chinese chap asks me if I want him to take a photo of me and I get him to do so out of politeness more than anything. 

I liked Boudhanath, but the driver only allotted me 30 minutes there, and I have to start making my way back to the truck. We’ve a little further to go to get to Bhaktapur, and I guess he needs to take more driving jobs on. I could have happily stayed for longer here though, as it was a really interesting structure and it felt rather spiritual and reverential – in some ways, much more so that Pashupatinath. But back I go, and fold myself back into the truck and get ready for the bumpy journey over to Bhaktapur. 

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