“Come in, come in! Don’t be afraid, he won’t hurt you”, beckoned the kind looking priest. I was standing in front of Pashupatinath Temple nervously trying to navigate my way around an enormous bull that had decided to block the gates of the entrance. Perhaps it was a physical manifestation of the golden bull that sat in the inner sanctum of the temple, facing Lord Pashupatinath in devotion. The carrier of Lord Shiva. I had read that only the destined would reach these footsteps without any resistance, yet here I was with this huge obstacle in front of me. The locals were amused of course. My attempts to hop, skip and jump past the beast had made them point and laugh raucously. “The path to God is not easy” they had said chuckling.
“This way, this way. Quick”! The priest was now waving his arms at me. The bull had finally shifted position allowing a small space for me to squeeze through. I felt the colossal power of its muscular, meaty presence as I rushed past it – my heart racing with fear. I had never seen anything so big! “Thanks”! I breathed at the priest. “No problem, no problem”! he said, his eyes laughing.
I quickened my pace as I left the priest standing there mid-sentence. His puny frame was enveloped by a white dhoti and on his forehead he had the typical Shaivite tilak of three horizontal lines of ash. “Where do you come…”? he called after me. I did not reply. I had read about these so called “priests” targeting tourists with the promise of sacred prayers – for a tidy sum of money of course! Everything had a price. Even here in such a revered site a prayer had a price. I wasn’t going to fall victim. I just wanted to come to see one of the most sacred Hindu temples of Shiva. A place where life and death stood together. Where the living would watch the open air cremations of the dead take place along the many ghats that lined the banks of the Bagmati River. Perhaps it was my own fascination with how cultures perceived death that drew me here or was it just blatant curiosity. Either way, I felt compelled to come here.
Nothing prepared me for the experience of entering Pashupatinath Temple. The air was heavy, almost solid with the smell of cow dung. The source of which I discovered came from an area full of cows, all being fed continuously by worshippers. I looked around to get some sense of the place. Sadhus sat cross legged, half naked. Ash smeared over there bodies giving them a zombie like look. Hair in dreadlocks, long and matted. Animals roamed freely everywhere. Cows, monkeys, goats and dogs. They seemed strangely at home as if they too belonged here. There was no sense of urgency from them to leave or be driven away. Well Lord Pashupatinath was after all the incarnation of Lord Shiva – Lord of the animals.
“Where are you from? You foreigner, not Indian, you pay”! I turned only to be suddenly confronted by the guy from the ticket office I had been avoiding. I replied in Hindi that I was Indian. He looked confused, suspicious, his eyes searching my features for a glimpse of familiarity that may prove my origins. I cracked a joke saying everyone thought I was European due to my fair skin and non-Indian nose. His eyes softened as he decided my Hindi was authentic and he grinned broadly showing me a set of impressive large white teeth. “No problem, put your shoes over there and you go in”!
Great! I had escaped the bull, the priest and avoided being swindled out of entrance fees. Plus, I was able to enter the actual temple complex itself reserved only for Hindus to enter. Being of both Sikh and Hindu origins I wasn’t going to quibble over the minor complexities of the religions and whether I was worthy of going in or not. After all animals wandered freely around the areas restricted to humans so I rest my case.
Entering the main courtyard of the temple itself, I was greeted by the back of the huge gold covered Nandi (bull). It sat on all fours on a raised platform facing the two tiered pagoda that housed the one metre high linga that represented Pashupati. I stood still and breathed in the feeling of the place. It felt surreal, it had a sense of reserved urgency, chaos and calm all at once. I watched as men and women lit incense as they circumambulated the pagoda, richly decorated with silver plated gilt doors on its four sides.
Meandering through the maze of endless statues, I marvelled at the ornate buildings. Pillars painted in bold reds and greens, ancient carvings depicting stories of good overcoming evil. I was beginning to get lost in my own thoughts when the priest appeared out of the blue. “Namaste” he said casually. “Where are you from”? There was that question again. Amused I laughed and said my parents were Indian, Punjabi in fact. He eyed me suspiciously. “This is the Mecca of the Hindus you know. Only Hindus are allowed here”. I replied that I was fully aware of it. He was still looking at me in a strange way. “Come I’ll show you around”, he said. Alarm bells rang. He was going in for the kill which meant I needed to make a fast exit. “Thank you but I don’t need a guide – I want to look around by myself”. I was getting slightly irritated by all this questioning. Surely, I didn’t look that European! I was wearing native clothes and had my head covered with a scarf out of respect. “No, I will show you around. You can’t do pooja, it must be done by priest or it means nothing. You pay me five thousand rupee and I do pooja for you”. There it was. My spiritual experience was being hacked away by someone who wanted to make some quick money. “Look! I don’t need a guide” I hissed. “You’re not getting any money, so leave me alone. On that note, I turned and hot footed it in the direction of the ghats, cutting short my actual visit to the inner sanctum of the temple.
Another half hour of trying to find the cremation site bought more questions from various people. Firstly from a guard and then from an elderly man who sat stroking a goat. All this was getting on my nerves. I was beginning to feel unwelcome, a foreigner, an imposter. It was bemusing that all I had done from the moment I had arrived was to justify my origins. This wasn’t the enlightening experience I had imagined. I thought back to bull at the entrance and the words spoken to me “the path to God is not easy”. Luckily, a group of young boys kindly showed me the way to the ghats and tipped me off about areas to avoid where I was sure to be asked for money. Again they were curious about where I was from and amused at my attempt at Hindi at which point I switched to telling a few Punjabi jokes. They all laughed throwing their heads back and slapping each other on the back at the punchlines. Finally Lord Shiva had put helpers in my path.
The site of the open air cremations was sobering and not as ghastly as I thought they would be. I sat quietly on the steps looking across at a cremation that was about to begin. Hoards of tourists with long lenses lined up for the close up shot and as I fidgeted with my camera, I felt like I was imposing on a private moment. But this was not a private place, it was open and truthful. There was no disguise, no convenient curtain or room that hid the act of fire. It was not clinical or sterile – just honest, uncomplicated and practical.
I watched as a body wrapped in white and orange cloth symbolising purity and peace was placed on a pyre of sandalwood. I guessed the deceased to be a man as what must have been his eldest son, placed a burning ember in his mouth. The mouth. The place where life began as the first breath was taken. Where laughter, sadness, truths and lies would be told. Watching the flames take hold and strengthen, a respectful silence took over the crowd. The cloth burned quickly and easily allowing the flames to devour the body. Slowly the smell of sandalwood wafted up into the air. Like incense, strong and heady. Watching the presence and physical being of a man turn to ashes forced me to think about how fragile and short life was. Once this man walked the earth. He had a family, a history, a job and a place in this world. He had been a child, perhaps a brother to someone, a father and now all traces of his body were slowly fading. All that would be left of him would be ashes, swept into the Bagmati river to make their journey to the holy Ganges. His soul would start its own new journey either to be reincarnated into another physical presence or hopefully free from the cycle of attachment, birth and death to finally reach enlightenment, Nirvana.
The moment I had stepped into this place, my own origins had been questioned. Who was I? Where did I come from? What was the basis of my existence. Now I asked the same questions in my mind of this man who was slowly melting away in front of my eyes. I thought about life and all its contradictions. It was all here. From the priest who used religion as the tool to make a dishonest living to the many characters who used the history and name of Pashupatinath to make their way in the world no matter how.
Now as I sat on the hill that overlooked the temple grounds, for the first time in a long time, a sense of calm washed over me. As the pyres burned sending swirls of sandalwood smoke high above the aged spires of Pashupatinath, I could almost feel the souls of the departed rise into the heavens. Prayers like kites fluttering after them. They were free from the illusion and chaos of life below. Free from Maya. There was a sense of clarity and truth in this temple. It forced you to crash land and question your own mortality, your own life – whether you wanted to or not. The characters I had come across were from life itself. Where chaos, obstructions, hindrances and death were personified. Like life, It was up to you how you dealt with it. Amidst all of the overwhelming madness of the place, there was a sense of beauty, honesty and peace. I left with a feeling of gratitude to Pashupatinath. Thankful that there was no veil to conceal the truth that when you looked into the flames, you saw how precious life was. In the end, we would all suffer the same fate. We were all in it together, no matter who you were or where you came from.
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