As morbid as it sounds, but life ends in death is inevitable.
There is one place which occupies my mind – Pashupathinath. It is located at 5km east of Central Kathmandu. My family did not visit the temple because entrance to the temple precinct is forbidden to non-Hindus. Before this, we visited 3 renowned UNESCO World Heritage Sites Swayambhunath Temple, Durba Square, Boudhanath Stupa. Pashupathinath was the 4th one. Sunil, our guide from Earthbound Expeditions warned us before we visited this cremation site and we could choose not to visit. We were not prepared but we were thankful that Sunil brought us to this unusual “tourist attraction”. Admission fees Rs500 per person, we entered to see burning of body in the open.
As Sunil explained, when a person dies or is on his/her death bed he/she is immediately brought to Pashupatinath Temple to be as close as possible. Upon death the process of the cremation takes place within minutes or hours. After death, the body is shrouded in an orange cloth, decorated with marigolds and carried to a concrete pillar for cremation.
Nepal is a male-dominated society, and this trend reflects in funeral customs as well. The eldest son of the family performs the cremation ceremony attended by male relatives only. The Hindus believe the person comes naked to the world, so they must go backwards naked. Ritual takes place after cremation over the next 13 days.
Every human body essentially are made from five elements which are Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space. Hindus believe that, upon death; all these 5 elements of human body are dissolved to respective element of nature, so that it can balance the cycle of nature. Each of these five elements has its own functions and characteristic described below:
Earth: This element is perceived by five senses that are Hearing, Smell, Taste, Touch and Sight. The physical body with muscles and bones refers to Earth.
Water: This element has no smell but can be heard, felt, seen and tasted. In human body, blood and other fluid are refer to Water.
Fire: In human body the temperature refers to fire. It can be heard, felt and seen.
Air: Air can be felt and heard only; one cannot see the air. In human body, oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body refers to Air.
Space: Space is the medium of sound but is inaccessible to all other senses. And as in human body the soul refers to Space.
The combination of these 5 elements makes our body and will dissolve into respective element upon death.
[information about 5 elements of nature from www.yogacurious.com]
At the time we were at the cremation ghat, there were several cremations in progress on the platforms by the river. The cries of the family members were heartbreaking. My tears fell as I shared the strangers’ grief. At that moment I felt strange and awkward taking pictures of the ceremony. Burning takes few hours. The ashes were collected and swept in Bagmati River, regarded as holy as it flows into the sacred Ganges, despite its polluted water and seasonal low flows. Cremations occur day and night.
When do we particularly contemplate Death? Have we managed to residual anger or fear? Or have a stronger hold on life? The cries of the deceased’s relatives set me thinking. It was upsetting to hear people grieving but it did seem a very dignified way to send off a relative. Coming from multi-cultural Singapore and Hinduism is one of the main religions in my country, the openness in funeral ritual is still shocking and sobering. This is a scene I will never forget.
While the ashes were swept in the river, children played in the water, buffaloes roamed about, life goes on.
The loss of a loved one turns our life upside down. Our world as we knew it has changed and those changes require that we in turn adjust to a new “normal.”