Kathmandu: a Grand Tour from the Monkey Temple to Cremations by a River

The next morning, we meet our guide for the day, Mr. Sanu Vajrachara. He is a research assistant to Prof. Todd Lewis (at Holy Cross University in Worcester, Mass.) and an all-around savant for the sights and histories of KTM. With a car and driver hired for the day, we are now highly mobile.

We head from the hotel to our first stop, Swayambhunath temple, perched atop a 300 meter hill at the edge of the KTM valley.

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Here’s the myth behind its beginning:

“The entire KTM valley was once filled with an enormous lake, out of which grew a lotus flower. The valley came to be known as Swayambhu, meaning “Self-Created.” The name comes from an eternal self-existent flame (svyaṃbhu) over which a stūpa was later built. (Swayambhunath is also known as the Monkey Temple as there are holy monkeys living in its north-west parts. When Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom and learning, was raising the hill which the Swayambhunath Temple stands on, he let his hair grow long and head lice formed. He changed the lice into these monkeys.)

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(photo from Wiki Commons)

But before the lice-into-monkeys transformation, Manjusri had a vision of the lotus at Swayambhu and traveled there to worship it. Seeing that the valley could be a good settlement for humans, Manjusri cut a gorge and 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 became the Swayambhunath stupa.” (from Wikipedia)

I remember coming up here some 35 years ago, although at that time the hill was in the countryside outside KTM proper. Today it is surrounded by buildings and roads, and has the feel of a city park more than a pilgrimage site. Since it is now more accessible, great crowds of people flow into the limited spaces available, creating bottlenecks as some offer prayers, others take photos, and a celebratory rather than religious atmosphere prevails. It is still a site of pilgrimage but, at least as I remember it, it seems to have shrunk in size. Too many people will do that to a place.

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We then head to Bhaktapur, Nepal’s “cultural capital” some 11 km. from the city center and on a small plateau. It was designated a World Heritage site and so can charge foreigners (though not Nepalis) around $15 a ticket to enter. Ouch. Just inside the gate, the first two areas are connected with the royal palaces of ancient Newar kings that formerly ruled in the Kathmandu valley. No vehicles are allowed so there is a peace and order that is punctuated only by large groups of school kids, families, and Chinese on tour.imageImage

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We pop in and out of buildings, with Sanu giving commentary along the way. Max seems more interested in the people than the sites, and I must admit the same. Ninety minutes later, we are finished with sightseeing and lunch, and are heading back to town. In my mind, however, I’ve noted a number of guest houses and inns, thinking that I’ll return after Max heads back to Japan on the 20th.

Our last stop is the Hindu temple Pashupatinath, dedicated to Shiva, lord of creation and destruction. We reach it around 3 p.m., feeling a bit tired and baked by the warm sun that has been with us since morning.

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However, once we enter the hillside viewing tiers built above the cremation area on the other side of the Bagmati river, fascination replaces fatigue. One cremation is in progress: a high-ranking politician who was on a Nepal Airlines flight from Pokhara which crashed in the mountains that rainy weekend we were there. 18 people died, all because this particular politician was on a tight schedule and needed to pay a visit to the remote region before hurrying back to KTM.

Two other bodies are wrapped in orange fabric printed with the “om” Sanskrit character, awaiting final rites preceding cremation.Image

Sanu shows us meditation caves just beside the temple proper. I’m a bit surprised to learn that non-Hindus are not allowed in the main temple, even though we paid $10 per person for admission to yet another World Heritage site. Having this distinction seems to give places the right to charge whatever they want, although some of that fee goes for maintenance and preservation (I would hope). I wonder if they would have allowed George Harrison to enter, a dedicated follower of Krishna and thus a Hindu by default.

Max seems wholly absorbed in watching the bodies be positioned for blessings and final goodbyes. A temple attendant helps family members administer oils, water, and food to the dead person. One corpse is positioned on a special slab of stone above the barely moving waters of the river, allowing everyone on the other side some 40 meters away to see clearly the gaping mouth of this old man (or woman?), into which each family member or relative pours water and then a few grains of rice. Several women are wailing, and one male–a son presumably–must be supported by two women on each side.

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At the same time some 40 feet directly above this riverside staging area, a group of devotees is drumming and singing pilgrimage prayers to Shiva. A Nepali Hindu would see no dissonance whatsoever between the pilgrims and the corpses since both are part of the life cycle and a result of karma. That is oversimplifying of course but I do wonder if the family members of the deceased even hear that lively music and chanting from directly above their heads.

On our side of the river, some people sit on a series of terraces facing the one ongoing cremation and the shrouded bodies awaiting their turn, while others sit on benches typical of public parks. There is a Pashupatinath cafe nearby, serving drinks and a variety of snacks.Image

And since a major Shiva festival is on the horizon, a number of wandering holy men are starting to converge and set up camps. Some are long-term residents of the temple, making ends meet by posing and being compensated monetarily for photos taken by visitors.  They may have been ascetics at one time in their careers, but these men seem to enjoy the role of religious performers, primping their face paint and hair while holding little hand mirrors, and then showing off for tourists. They are photogenic and I make a small donation of 20 rupees, but I also sneak a photo or two as other visitors snap away.

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We have watched one family prepare their elderly parent for over an hour, and are now out of time even though we would like to stay longer to see the final fire. But our agreement is until 4 p.m., and so we leave with some reluctance and fight traffic to make it back to the hotel. At first Sanu puts up resistance about receiving some payment for ushering us thru the day, but eventually relents when I tell him that Todd will be pissed if he doesn’t take the money ($30). And although Max and I are pooped, we still have to eat and so, after resting a bit, head down to the stupa for a meal and an evening view from the windows of the Gurkha grill.

There are so many images, histories, resonances, and encounters of the day that it will take some time for the dust to settle. Mostly, I feel a sense of relief and gratitude that we made it through the day, and that Max’s last one in Nepal had a poignant lesson about the impermanence of life. We even talk at dinner about our own demise, and what should be done with the remains. It’s a cheery conversation, aided by a couple beers, that is not weighed down with sadness or regret.

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