Ashes: Pashupatinath Kathmandu

IMG_4733If I closed my eyes and imagined myself somewhere else, it would have been in a happy place. Like, at a Memorial Day barbeque. Chris would be grilling burgers on our lanai; I would be setting out our favorite broccoli salad—the one with the raisins, red onions and bacon bits. The kids would want to open the bag of Wavy Lays and the French onion dip. “Don’t open that until dinnertime,” I would yell. I would then open it myself when the kids wandered off. I’d shove several chips in my mouth when I made sure they were out of sight.

IMG_4740I would have preferred to be there. Not here.

I fished the face mask out of my yak wool jacket’s pocket as soon as I began to see the wafts of smoke billowing across the path in front of me. This would be neither pleasant nor easy. I fastened the ear loops around my right ear, then my left.

I wanted to see this.

I pulled the mask up and covered my mouth, then my nose. My eyes were still exposed to the air; they burned. I would later send the clothing to the laundry service at our guest house and would take a shower. The smell of burning meat permeated and lingered.

It would be more accurate, however, to say that the smell of “burning flesh” lingered.

The smell of cooked meat, the billowing smoke—it was all caused by burning bodies. It was 11 a.m. on a Tuesday.  Barely 24 hours before, the bodies had been people: they had laughed; they had cried; they had probably known they were going to die. Their families had gathered around them to say their goodbyes.

It was hospice.

I am at Pashupati Nath on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, an area that consists of 518 temples and monuments. This is the biggest shrine in Hinduism. It is also one of the holiest places, where the dead are prepared for their eternal ritual. It was recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It is dedicated to Pashupati, an incarnation of the Hindu god, Shiva. “Pashu” means “living beings”; “Pati” means “master.” According to maptia.com, “Pashupati is the master of all living beings in the universe.”

The grounds are crawling (literally) with monkeys. The “sadhus,” who are ascetic “holy men,” are seated around the area, covered in the ashes from the funeral pyres. They have unshaven beards and long hair. They wear orange robes; although, some are naked. Naked yoga sometimes occurs. (We did not see this when we visited. Thank god. Thank…Shiva!?)

In Hinduism, those who are cremated on the banks of the Bagmati River and whose ashes enter the water will have their sins washed away. In turn, they will be closer to their eternal goal, which is referred to as “moksha,” “nirvana,” or “samadhi.” This goal is essentially a release from the cycle of life—of death and rebirth.  All living things are trapped in this cycle, a belief that ultimately results in the caste system.

IMG_4744The bodies are prepared by the oldest son, who is the “lead cremator.” Before the cremation begins, he bathes himself in the river. The women step aside: they are not allowed in the area while the ceremony occurs.

The bodies are wrapped in white or red (red, if it is a woman whose husband is still alive). Water is put in the deceased’s mouth. The big toes are tied together with a string and a Tilaka (a mark on the forehead) is applied. The body is put first on a ghat near the river and is then set on the pyre with its feet facing south.

There were currently no less than six cremations happening, just across the trash-strewn “river.” At this point, in early January, the Bagmati River seemed less like a river and more like a trickle of water. (Although I grew up along the banks of the Mississippi. So, my standards of what constitute a “river” are slightly skewed.)

The water was filthy. A little girl of seven or eight had taken her shoes off and had waded into calf-deep water. Smiling, she fished something out of the water. She lifted it up triumphantly to show her brother who was kicking rocks on the riverbank. I wondered what she had found. At that age, my daughter would have collected rocks, mulch, ribbons—it didn’t take much to pique her interest.

“Look at that,” my friend Michael said as he leaned in next to me. He pointed to an active pyre. I looked just as a leg—from the knee down—tumbled out of it and onto the ground.

uXZdq0JJTPeCNV5su28s7gThe man tending the pyre, perhaps the lead mourner, grabbed two sticks. He deftly picked the limb up and flipped it back into the fire. The charred foot remained visible. I wondered who this person had been — what his or her contribution had been to the world. To me, he/she would always be associated with, “that time I saw the foot fall out of the fire at Pashupati.”

The air was heavy with not only smoke and ash, but with sadness. This was a place of sorrow and of death. I could feel it; it was acute. I believe I could feel it even more so: my dad had been cremated hardly a month before on the other side of the world.

We had sat in a small room at a dark paneled wood conference table on rolling caster leather office chairs.  A young woman sat in the corner. She wore foundation that was several shades too light and a dress that was at least two sizes too small. She didn’t say a word, but fetched water for us and, occasionally, documents off the printer.

The shock of his death had barely set in. Not even 48 hours before, I had rushed to the hospital as fast as I could. I didn’t make it on time. I had instinctively known this. When I had pulled over to call my mom, the hospital’s chaplain answered her phone. Never a good sign.

“Thank you for being with her,” was all I could say. Several hours later, I kissed his forehead. He looked like he was sleeping.

My brother, husband and I sat with my mother in a weird, uneasy silence across from a rotund man in a cheap suit. He was nice, straightforward, and considerate—everything you would want in a funeral director, although I had no experience with this. It had been a preneed arrangement and had been already paid for. The date on the preneed papers my mom clutched within her file said 2015.

There were, however, several choices we need to make.

“Behind you are the biodegradable urns,” the man in the cheap suit said. We all turned, as if choreographed, to look simultaneously at the selections. They were all unremarkable, I thought; as Marie Kondo would say, nothing “sparked joy.” None were remarkable enough to hold my dad—a person who was utterly remarkable in every way. Not every daughter could say that, but I could. And I still can.

They were all slightly chintzy. He would have scoffed at the choices. We chose the biodegradable urn with butterflies on it. It wasn’t really him, but it would do: It would be going into the ground, anyway…what did he care?

The man went through the charges. He fussed around with a credit that had resulted when we decided that the burial would be performed at a later date: transportation wouldn’t be needed to the cemetery.

We designed the funeral programs.

The cardboard box in which he would be cremated cost $90.fullsizeoutput_1ac7.jpeg

I looked across the river at the bodies covered in orange cloth and sprinkled with marigolds. We had seen strings of marigolds draped across homes, shops, gates. Here, they were laid across the bodies before they were burned. I thought they were beautiful; however, I would never look at marigolds the same way.

His forehead had been so cold when I had kissed it. I’m sure the bodies across the river from me were also cold. Although the sun was out, it was a chilly day. The families of the deceased sat huddled together by each funeral pyre. I wondered if they felt the warmth from the fire in front of them; I wondered how it felt to know that the fire’s fuel and warmth came from their loved one.

My eyes stung. I realized I was crying.

Be Friendly to Foreigners

IMG_4881 “What does that sign mean,” I asked our guide between huffs and puffs. The sweat dripped off my forehead and stung my eyes. The wooden green-and-white sign was posted in intricate Nepali script on the side of the trail where I was currently struggling. We had tackled about 750 feet of Pokhara’s Anadu Hill on our way to Shanti Stupa, one of the world’s 80 peace pagodas.

Pokhara ranges between 2,713 feet and 5,710 feet in elevation. It is Nepal’s second largest city and is a short 30-minute plane flight from Kathmandu. (Our plane ride was taken via an airline named “Yeti,” appropriately. Our hopelessly spry flight attendant darted up and down the aisles — first with cotton balls [for the ears], then with hard candies. She raced to hand out peanuts and pour us each a glass of water before we touched down in the Pokhara Valley.)

The contrast between Pokhara and Kathmandu was stunning: The resort-like town of Pokhara had a lighter, less chaotic feel than that of Nepal’s capital city. I welcomed the reprieve from the Kathmandu Valley’s dust situation, which seemed to permeate everywhere and everything. Pokhara’s days were warm, bright and sunny. Paragliders with colorful chutes bounded off the sides of the cliffs, and then floated peacefully down toward Fewa Lake. Colorful canoes cut across the water and took loads of tourists to the Tal Barai Temple, which was located on a tiny island in the middle of the lake.

Pokhara Valley was picturesque: The city looked up to sharply ascending emerald-green mountains. (Nepali call them “hills.” I noted that their “hills” are the size of the Rockies.)

On clear days, the Himalayan mountain range that boasts three of the ten highest peaks in the world can be seen: Dhaulagirl (26,794 ft.), Annapurna I Main (26,545 ft.), and Manaslu (26,781 ft.). The city’s most famous peak, Machuchare, is said to resemble a fishtail. It reaches 22,943 feet and can be seen to the north. (Consider the highest point in the Rocky Mountain range, Mount Elbert, at 14,440 ft.)

U16aubrXTTm0rCPgq0QDRA“It says, ‘Be friendly to foreigners,’” he said. I was taken slightly aback. From what I had seen, being friendly to foreigners seemed like second nature to the Nepali people. Everywhere we went during this 10-day trip, we were met with smiles, hot, sweet milk tea (masala tea with loads of sugar and hot milk) and cookies. I enthusiastically accepted both…and more, if offered, given how much walking was occurring on a daily basis.

On this particular day, I had registered over 17,770 steps and 80-something stories. (Upon learning this, I promptly tore open another sleeve of cookies and attacked it. Think Cookie Monster; not a fine moment.) The trek up was mostly stairs, anathemas that I tended to avoid whenever possible, opting for elevators instead. I shuffled along slowly, occasionally stopping to sit on the edge of a cliff to catch my breath — as well as to catch the stunning views of PokIMG_4879hara.

I was passed by Nepali families: men, women, children — even a grandmotherly lady who appeared to be well into her 70s. (She carried a walking stick, I noticed. Next time, I vowed, I would find a walking stick.)

“Namaste,” I heard, over and over.

“Namaste,” I returned.

All friendly, all welcoming. All, presumably, slightly amused at the American-who-was-clawing-her-way-to-the-top-of-the-hill-no-matter-what.

No, I didn’t think that any of the Nepali people I had encountered needed any reminders to be friendly to foreigners.

Americans? Now, Americans are another story. We need to be reminded of a lot of things: “Slow traffic, move right”; “Don’t drink and drive”; “Slow down, workers present”; “Employees, wash hands before returning to work,” lest our brains and our common sense fall out into a puddle on the floor and we forget.  Americans — many of whom are lulled into complacency by social media and the ease of their everyday lives — need to be reminded to be friendly and considerate, as if decency doesn’t even come naturally anymore.

The default emotion now seems to be “OUTRAGE.” We are OUTRAGED when someone cuts us off in traffic, merges into our lane, looks at us wrong, slights us. We shake our fist; the middle finger flies up. Yet, when compared to much of the world, our lives are ridiculously easy.  This was my number-one takeaway from my trip to Nepal: We have it so, so easy compared with the rest of the world. We are OUTRAGED by things that don’t matter — little things, really.

IMG_4887

I was surrounded by natural beauty everywhere in Nepal; the view from the top of the World Peace Pagoda was stunning. I climbed the stairs to circle the pagoda, which featured four statues of the Buddha in shimmering gold. It was late afternoon. As the sun went down, it would become chilly, even cold.

I started back down the steps that were carved into the side of Anadu Hill, down the hill toward Fewa Lake. We returned to our colorful canoes, and then to lakeside Pokhara.

There, we would sit down with friends for daal bhat, milk tea and cookies.