After Kathmandu: the Rite of Cremations

The last farewell at Pasupatiná, outdoor cremations in Nepal

As far as the right bank of the Bagmati River, within a shot of Kathmandu airport, the walls of the great golden temple of Pashupatinath, dedicated to the almighty god Shiva, protector of Nepal. On that same side, on the smooth greenish slate of the stairs [ghat], where the sun exercises, runs and enters first every morning, the world and the dead parade.

The Hindu ritual of outdoor cremations [antyeshti] urges families to celebrate it urgently from the day before, in a public ceremony charged with the utmost sensitivity, provided by the Brahmin priests of the same enclosure [ghat bahun].

The economic status, the ethnic group and the caste distinguish here also the funerals. But that does not change that the crudeness of the gesture and the hands with which a Nepalese is capable of cutting a goat's neck to offer its blood to the goddess Dakshinkali becomes deeply fragile when accompanying her dead. Only the degree of emotionality with which one conducts himself at funeral hours, without any possible comparison, means that in the eyes of a European what in principle could be revealed as insurmountable coldness comes to be seen with astonishing closeness and even strange affection.

«The elements decompose, everything decomposes and rearranges itself; Heraclitus is not that far away ».

The elements break down, everything breaks down and rearranges; Heraclitus is not that far away. It is the same universe and the same philosopher who assured that none of the gods or men did it, that it has been eternally and is and will be an eternally living fire, which turns on and off according to measurements. Although, yes, the flames in the cremation of the mythical hero Achilles approached wine instead of water to suffocate it.

The shady massacre that occurred in 2001 at the Narayanhity Palace, the official residence of the Nepalese royal family, which, together with the regicide perpetrated by the eldest son, took nine more relatives, would bury the Shah dynasty and would soon lead to the abolition of the monarchy and the proclamation in 2005 of the current republic with democratic aspirations.

Until then, Pashupatinah Temple had been an immemorial witness to the funerals of the royalty and court, reserving the ghat in this alluded section of the river for its exclusive funerary use, but from now on it will be concentrated here what historically had passed through multiple places scattered from the wide network of water arms that flow through the capital.

In Pashupatinah, separated by a bridge, two sections of ghats, a shorter and more relevant one, the so-called noble staircase [arya ghat], which falls just below the eastern door of the temple, with only two platforms where cremations can be held, and the most extensive, below, called del sol [surya ghat], currently used by the bulk of the population. 

Purification of the corpse in Pasupatiná, Nepal

In turns, without rest, night and day, death travels the line of ghats that cut at the base of the temple the sacred water of the holiest of the eight rivers that cross old Kathmandu and end up merging with the living flow of the Ganges below. At that same point, the Kathmandunese shrouded for cremation arrive there.

Outside the gates of the city, in a thick and fine atmosphere that covers everything, each one of them enters at a slow pace on trailers led by the men of his family to the place where they will be purified and fired.

The time of mourning begins to become heavy and slow, the necessary funeral ritual begins prior to cremation, the most intimate moment, that of a long goodbye. 

«Death runs the row of ghats night and day".

The deceased is then gently picked up and posed on the ground so that it comes into contact with the earth while waiting to be brought closer and supported on a sloping slab [brahmanical], arranged on the same staircase for this purpose, where it will remain carefully suspended to facilitate its purification. Face and extremities are exposed free to be sprayed with milk and with water trapped between the hands from the same surface of the river. Family and friends will pay their respects to the deceased by bowing the head with the palms of the hands open, joined and gathered to the chest until they hit the forehead like a spring on the collapsed tips of the feet of the deceased.

The moment of the offerings

In this preparation for cremation, the most emotional, the moment of the offerings: sticks of incense, fresh marigolds the color taken from saffron and a singular petricor smell of detained blood, rice balls, in which the local pigeons will immediately participate indifferently, and red powder that is scattered and with which the forehead is covered. deceased.

From there, returned to the guides, it is readjusted the shroud again, sometimes other remnants of colors and inscriptions are superimposed, and they even place clothes either of the deceased or of a relative on the torso, even food, and then transferred in procession preceded by sharp and auspicious blows of conch rituals [shankha], Come in mantras, which resound successively during the short journey to the pyre, marking like a morse from beyond the grave the salute to the four winds and announcing the passage of death, purifying the air and conjuring up the origins of creation itself.

In that penetrating sound is the whole, a persistent rite with the identification of the elements that recalls, once again, the Fragments of Heraclitus: the death of the earth is to become water, the death of water is to become air, the death of the air is to become fire, and vice versa.

«During the journey to the pyre, conch rituals resound like a morse from beyond the grave announcing the passing of death».

Two brahmins, sometimes three or more, of dull white cotton, have advanced and very skillfully arranged, with repeated skill, the bed of logs where the corpse will be accommodated, girded by a seamless shroud. Three rows of proportioned and counterbalanced logs, in two bodies each to better direct a balanced fire to the head and feet, which as a general rule are suspended and bare, make up the pyre in which everything wrapped will burn, without losing the level in any moment.

Moments prior to the start of cremation.

Combustion and rite of cremations

Covered with bundles of straw, suitably purified beforehand by immersing them suddenly in the waters of the river and drained in cones, the fire is fed with small firewood (about two hundred and fifty kilos) and small sacks of animal fat [ghee] placed between the air chambers of the device to fan the fire (sandalwood, due to its high cost, is very very exceptionally used).

A first flashit ignites and reaches for the inert head and chest, then races through the rest of the mortuary bed, giving off a flame of intense light that soon becomes a firm column of rising whitish smoke, drowned out by quick, dry noises of the first crackling.

Combustion and the rite will be prolonged for hours, depending on the state and nature of the corpse, from three on average to more than five in some cases, assisted by the same brahmins, who walk the steps with natural elegance, now equipped with bamboo poles [ban bars] to take care of the live embers until they are consumed and finished.

Although sometimes there are remnants of logs that end up swept up and straight to the riverbed, the pyre is reduced to a small pile of ashes, then washed out with buckets of water pulled from the shore between clouds of serene and slow steam as a result of the intense heat that has absorbed the platform after all that time and that in successive puffs completely erases - and even purifies if there is faith - the signs of death and all its ceremonial, until the next duel, which waits at the edge of the staircase, without end. 

"The combustion and the rite will last for hours, depending on the state and nature of the corpse, from three to five hours at times."

Before leaving him on the bed that awaits him, the dead man is turned three times in a clockwise direction, representing the path of eternal return y the perfection. Then the cremation itself begins while the family waits, divided by sex, in the background, except for the first-born or the most direct relative, who will light the flame. As I could see after weeks, it is not usual for them to remain until the end, until the complete sweep of the ghat.

Outdoor cremations in Kathmandu, Nepal
Brahmins celebrate funeral mourning in Kathmandu
In the middle, members of the Brahmin caste celebrate honors after cremation in the Manamaiju neighborhood. On the right, two boys try to fish for coins and other metal offerings with old magnets at the very foot of the pyre during the cremation.
End of cremation in Kathmandu

At a point where the cremation has devoured the body and the firewood, the men wash their heads and necks with the water that flows from the fountains on both sides of the start of the stone bridge that spans the banks of the Bagmati and shaves themselves then the head to blade, or they leave a fine ponytail [tupi], or they cut to zero, although this does not always occur ritual closure with shave.

The members of the Brahmi caste then approach the edge of the Bagmati for a synchronized ablution and the firstborn, who has collected a handful of the ash and wrapped in a piece of cloth, enters the river and sinks it to the bed.

Except during the Sivaratri festival days, the largest annual celebration in honor of Siva, with a large influx of shadus, because Pashupatinah is not, contrary to what can often be read in express blogs, a place of concentration for them the rest of the year, it is highly unlikely to see them come to collect the ashes and smear themselves with them as they do in Varanasi. 

The duel will last for the next ten days in a rite [sraddha], not only religious but also social, that male relatives, considered impure, still surrounded by certain taboos, have to celebrate in honor of the deceased, to provide a new spiritual body to the naked soul after cremation and thus facilitate its transit to the next life. ✑REGION

Postscript: At the beginning of 2016, its first electric crematorium, a challenge for the traditional funerary practice seeking a harmonic continuity between live fire and electricity, tradition and progress, technology and the environment.

Moment of the final ablution and prior to burying the ashes in the bed of the Bagmati.

3 comments

  1. Nepalese funeral rites impact Westerners because of the different concept of death depending on religion or culture. We Westerners are anguished by death, we avoid it and it is difficult for us to face it, while for Hindus it is a transition to a new rebirth, they have had a pre-existing life and after death they will reincarnate again, for Hindus death is not the end, but the beginning of a new life. Congratulations for this interesting post, illustrated by some beautiful photos. Thank you for sharing it, traveling allows us to compare and see the differences between uses and customs, mentalities and procedures in other cultures and religions, peoples and populations, it opens up new perspectives and makes us more empathetic. This blog transports us to Nepal as if it were a virtual trip, opening our eyes to a completely different culture. Congratulations and, as they say in artistic slang, I wish you 'a lot of shit'.

    1. Thank you very much for leaving your comment, the first on the web, historical :-))
      Nepal, like the entire Himalayas, is another world for Westerners, I would almost say obligatory to see and enjoy.
      A lot of shit (^ v ^)

      1. Good morning, I put it on the agenda. A journey of contrasts, opening up horizons and getting closer to oriental culture, from which we also have a lot to learn. All the best.

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