Enlightenment at Pashupatinath
It was to be, unknown to us, the final week of peaceful shopping in Kathmandu. My bargaining style is simple. I offer 40% of what the vendor demands and not a rupee more. More often than not (in the slow season), I get it. “A few extra dollars spent means a lot to the vendor; little to the tourist.” I don’t think so! Not when I’m initially quoted a price five times more than the item is worth.
Cashmere, angora, yak. Three kinds of Nepalese sweaters. I entered the shop where my friend, Brigitte, was haggling. She was pissed.
“This (a bright red sweater held up before the fascinated shopkeeper) is not cashmere! It is yak! How dare you think I would let you touch my breasts to get a good price for yak!”
Throwing the sweater down, she stalked out the door.
Well. None of my business! Brigitte told me that Kathmandu merchants hit on western females as a matter of course. We’d been in town for days now. It was evident the magical Kathmandu of yore had become just another third world hustler town. Too much air pollution. Too many unsmiling people scrambling for survival.
Considering I’d fantasized for a decade about coming to Kathmandu, I felt quite let down. Perish my dreams! Maybe not just yet. Time to pilgrimage the Katmandu valley temple circuit. Enlightenment at Pashupatinath was just down the dusty road.
Brigitte protested that sifting cashmere from angora and yak was spiritual practice enough.
“But suppose we were corpses,” I argued. “To be cremated at the Pashupatinath burning ghats is the effortless way to break free of Maya. To be cremated at Pasupatinath is Liberation.”
That silenced her. It’s also Nepal’s most important Hindu shrine, and possibly, the most important shrine to the great meditation deity, Lord Shiva, on the entire Indian subcontinent.
At first glance I was disappointed. Pashupatinath stretched out in many directions; all of them hot, dusty and dirty. A couple of sacred cows hogged a little shade. The only mantras to be heard emanated out of a souvenir store boom box – Tibetan mantras, of course. My fellow pilgrims looked capable of picking my pocket. Pasupatinath, with its open air complex of small stone buildings and walls, might have been a Mexican desert town. Except there were no fountains. Here and there, tired vendors pushed spiritual souvenir carts featuring machine-made Shiva pendants and meditation-inducing Rudraksha beads.
We wandered. Slowly, I began to sense that the temple complex definitely had an energy of its own. It was me who was off kilter. Having experienced the tightly focused, self-promoting meditation centers of the West, the timeless aimlessness of Pasupatinath was disturbing to me. I probably just needed a…
“Bonjour Madam! Monsieur. Parlez-vous franï¿½ais? Anglais? Deutsch?”
I probably needed a guide! No tourist can ever be alone in the Kathmandu valley. Someone is always trying to sell you something. The biggest pests want to be your guide. And they will not go away. Ignore them. Unperturbed, they walk alongside you. Educating you. Pointing things out. Making your visit better. Ignoring your ignoring of their ignoring of your ignoring till the weakest member of your party gives in and asks them a question.
“I speak all three languages. But please, only English for this man.”
“My name is Robby, my friends.” Smooth English for me, the poor linguistic imbecile.
“The burning ghats,” I snarled.
Robby walked ahead. Educating us. Pointing. The ghats are a strange, strange place. One cremation fire was directly below us, laid out upon a stone platform which overhung the slow moving Bagmati River. Your ashes go into the Bagmati. They flow downstream for a watery bit. Voilï¿½, your departed soul is Enlightened!
Two hundred feet to the north of us, on the same side of the riverbank, was a similar cremation platform. Apparently business was slow, or the workday was over, for there was nothing much to be seen in either pyre but small tongues of flame and mostly consumed logs. Between the two ghats, an attractive stone footbridge led over the river to a lot of interesting architecture on the other side. The Bagmati itself was little more than knee deep; really just a shallow, slow moving stream. I’d recommend being cremated in the Spring, when snow melt from the Himalayas would speed your ashes downstream.
Our guide drew us nearer. This particular cremation, he explained, was over. “Damn,” Brigitte grumbled. Letting go of her camera, she scanned the crowds behind us. I did too. Just our luck. No more dead people today. For a moment we looked at each other, Roadrunner/Coyote style. Then I searched the crowds again. Everyone in time, but not just yet.
I wandered about. A young man was tending the fire. Was it like watching a movie while sitting by the exit door? Imagine putting the torch to the bodies of your grandfather, your father, and your friends!
Our guide was pointing again. “This is the burning ghat of the poor people. Those with no money are cremated here. Over there, Nepalese royalty, and others with wealth and possessions.”
I was intrigued. What kind of corpse still had wealth and possessions? I studied the other ghat. I couldn’t see any difference, except that it had more monkeys. They scampered about on the sandbar directly below. Also, a small souvenir cart was parked perilously close to the flames.
“Do the poor burn less brilliantly than the rich?” I inquired, humorously. “A deeper, richer, flame?” Robby nodded agreeably. Irony, alas, is a first world trait.
We wandered over to the upper class ghats. I have a rather servile attitude towards wealthy ashes, but Brigitte was in her element. The unattended cart was a typical Pasupatinath souvenir stand, depressing. Even if I pulled out of my financial slump and made it here, the last moments of my story would be filled with oblivious strangers bickering over souvenirs. The end would not be my story but their story! More so it was sad to realize that the absent vendor had parked his souvenir cart here because, after all, this was where the money was.
We crossed to the other side of the river. Ancient stone steps led to stone towers more than 20 feet high. The steps gave access to long horizontal platforms, similar to seating in an outdoor stadium – viewing platforms for royal cremations, I assumed. Robby explained that the towers were a kind of mausoleum, reserved for Nepalese royalty. I’d like to say that a chill of premonition ran through me then, but no such thing.
I’d been lost in wondering if I could get 60% off the asking price of the trinkets on the cremation souvenir cart. I voiced a mild confusion. How could royal ashes be in the mausoleum and yet be in the river, attaining Liberation, at the same time? The answer, (I think), seemed to be that the mausoleums were really empty memorials. The corpses are always cremated, as per Hindu dharma.
We wandered back to the bridge. The sun was lower now, bathing Pashupatinath in a softer, more contemplative light. Water sparkled silently beneath us. I felt relaxed, free of all worldly cares – free even of the need for freedom from Maya. After all, wasn’t illusion itself an illusion? I opened my writer’s notebook.
Temple of Lord Shiva! In the pale afternoon light, a monkey scratches its ass. Brigitte, one of the great French monkeyphiles, snapped more photos of her little friends upon the sandbar. Hey. Wait a minute. That sandbar.
“Robby.” The urgency in my voice made him turn. “Robby. The river, it’s really slow and shallow here. Do you see that sandbar just below the royal ghat? Is it catching the ashes of the departed – the ashes that are supposed to be washing down the Bagmati to Liberation?”
Robby paled. “That is just sand,” he replied. “Just sand.”
My girlfriend’s eyes widened. Here was a scandal to make yak for cashmere pale! “Just sand,” he said again. He walked away. I had never seen a Kathmandu valley guide so upset. Brigitte followed. I stared down at the water again. Very possibly – hell, obviously – that sandbar just underneath the royal cremation platform had to be made of at least some ashes. Maybe buckets full of them. Instead of Liberation, I looked at the monkeys and shuddered. It was best to keep my mouth shut. All just illusion, anyway. I hurried to catch up with Brigitte and our ride back to the souvenir shops of Kathmandu.
We were only days back in Bangkok when the assassination of the Nepalese Royal Family occurred. We read in sad fascination how their mortal remains were burned at the same ghat we had visited. Did their ashes flow downstream to attain Liberation? I hope so. Sometimes, I guess, it really is better to be poor.