Pashupatinath Hindu temple in Kathmandu, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a contradiction and a challenge to western sensibilities.
The temple, open only to those born into the Hindu faith, is set on the banks of the Bagmati River and is one of the major tourist attractions in Kathmandu, but along with a visit to the most sacred temple of Hindu Lord Shiva in the world comes a cultural jolt.
The two main roofs of the temple are embellished with gold, the four main doors are adorned with silver and the temple houses the sacred phallic symbol of Lord Shiva. It is not the history of this temple, that dates back to 400AD, nor the awe inspiring architecture, that holds the focus of most tour groups though, but rather the cremations taking place in front of the temple.
In Hindu religion fire is seen as a sacred gateway to the spiritual world and, although there are indoor crematoriums in most cities, there are still areas where the Hindus cremate their dead in the open air.
Raised concrete slabs by the Bagmati River in front of the PashupatinathTemple is one such area. The bodies are cremated and the ashes then brushed into the river.
These cremations are undertaken in full view of the gawking tourists with cameras at the ready.
Personally I was more intrigued than upset. Mortuary archaeology of Roman Britain was the topic of my PhD thesis, so I was able to relate this custom to very similar ancient customs, but understandably it can be quite disconcerting and even upsetting for some people.
Around the area you also have the inevitable sellers of jewellery and trinkets, constantly pushing for a sale and the Sadhus, holy men or wandering monks who have renounced everyday concerns to live a life on the edges of society.
One cannot help but be sceptical though when those who have renounced society require payment before a photo of them is taken.
I have given serious consideration to as to whether I should include the following photo of a cremation pyre. I decided it should be included as this ritual is part of the culture of the place I visited. If you don’t wish to see it please stop here.