Smell of Burning Death

I’ve wanted to go to the crematorium place they call Pashupati.  It’s not something you see every day and it would be the really unique temple I’d be visiting. Not  in any way like the Swoyambou and Buddha nath temples, which were unique in their own ways, but which were really Buddhist structures. And well,  I saw a lot of those in my adventures with Pinky earlier this year in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam— places that are so Buddhist you wouldn’t know that Buddhism started in Nepal.

One of the loyal guards of the temples

The temples in Kathmandu are unique, for though some are labeled Buddhist, or Hindu, it’s hard to say who the majority of the worshippers are, for followers of both religions will stake some claim to each temple. The Pashupati is, however, a predominantly Hindu temple. And it also serves as the crematorium, where all the dead are burned. But, like anywhere in the world, you have to have money to have the privilege to be cremated there. I don’t know where the corpses of the poorer folks go. I’ve also heard of some rich folks who take their deceased to far away places in India, which are supposed to be very holy, to burn them from over there. Especially to Varanasi on the River Ganges. Maybe they’re also worth a visit. Someday.

After paying a hefty 500 rupees to get into the temple, the site where tourists are allowed, I was treated to three hours of depressing smells and sights. The scent of smoke and burning flesh hung in the air, only that you don’t notice it’s human flesh burning. It’s not the kind of smell that hits you right on the nose and you wrinkle in disgust, or wish you had carried Vicks. Rather, it’s a smell that seeps into your nose, takes you unawares, and without you knowing it, you discover that this smell is part of the world. And it’s depressing.

Preparing the body for the after-life

You suddenly find yourself in a low mood. It’s not just watching the last funeral rites being conducted by the river banks, and the sight of the corpse wrapped up in orange—like an orange mummy— with flowers and wreathes (they call it mala) scattered all over. This same mala is used to welcome very important visitors, used in weddings, and now I see it’s used to send you off to the fire. It’s also the sight of a thing that once was a river, pure and holy, but that has been polluted beyond recognition, until it is now a sewage canal, and whose smell wafts up into the air, obscuring the smell of burning death. It’s also the sight of monkeys scampering about, plucking ticks off each other, beggars and holy men stinking by the doorways and on the bridges, hawkers selling suspiciously cheap necklaces—for twenty rupees you get a silver necklace? Did they rip it off a corpse?—and the hordes of tourists who are watching the funeral rites as though they are in an amusement park, smiling, clicking their cameras as if it’s the end of the world. 

Ready for cremation

On one side of the river, they’ve built what could be taken for a pavilion, with a “viewing spot” at the top, and during the tourist season, you find this whole place sagging with tourists who watch the activities being played at the other end of the river. Those with powerful zooms on the cameras capture the minutest details of the mourners, and of the dead. I wouldn’t like to be cremated in such a place, where my funeral would be a show for tourists who will only display my last photos on Facebook alongside photos of monkeys and elephants and other attractions they’ve photographed in their holidays.

Well, you could see the tourists following the corpse from this side of the river, while the family and mourners follow it from the other side of the river—the audience and the actors— and this subconsciously adds up to your gloom and depression.

This is a daily sight for the Saddhus who live in the temple compound.

This is probably the most depressing blog I’ve had to write, but then, it’s the only way to capture the grim mood of that place. That graveyard.

But the highlight of the day was the Saddhus, the holy men who make a living from posing for photographs. We ran into one who had collected money from all over the world, and he wanted us to give him notes from our own country. So I gave him a few Filipino notes, and he kept it in his album. He seemed a nice guy, and I was depressed when he asked an English couple, who had taken several photos of him, for money, and all they were tossing him were coins from England, and saying proudly, ‘This is English money’, as if that coin would be of use to him.
Holy men

We left Pashupati as it was coming towards lunchtime and headed for Patan durbar square, which is much like the other Durbar Square we visited earlier. It used to be a palace for the Malla Kings many hundreds of years ago, and also a home for the living goddesses, like the one we saw before. But now there is only one living goddess in the whole world so this one didn’t have any.

We went to this restaurant at a rooftop, where we had a splendid view of the square, and though Dilman wanted us to take a walk to it, to see this phallus of the Hindu god Shiva, that women pray to when they are barren, and that impotent men pray to for prowess, I wasn’t in the mood for more sightseeing. The visit to Pashupati had killed it all for me. I just wanted to go back to the hotel and lie in my bed and feel happy about being alive.
But of course it was still too early to think of bed, so we decided to watch a play, “Angels in America,” though they should have called it “Angels in Kathmandu”). And I couldn’t follow half of it because some of the actors were speaking in accents I couldn’t understand. But it was a well-presented play, and most of the actors were really good.
I didn’t know it at that time, but it marked the end of my pleasure visit to Nepal. The next day, I did some work, visiting HI partners in Kathmandu, and after that, we did shopping for presents I would take to my family later. Nothing really to write home about, but I certainly will come to Nepal another day, with my lovely sisters maybe, just to have a better look at the snow-capped mountains!

You might also like Claustrophobic at Cu Chi, Pensive in Phnom Penh, Dressed to Kill

6 Comment

  1. Chyng says: Reply

    omg, i dont know if I will have the guts to smell a burning flesh.
    this is very interesting though. thanks for sharing. i might include Nepal in my future trips! =)

  2. admin says: Reply

    Yes, Nepal is a really beautiful place, especially if you have a good camera with you. wink* I'm glad you dropped by my site. I came across yours when I was planning for my SE Asia backpacking trip. Thanks for sharing your experiences, and happy gallivanting! Hope I will bump into you soon, in one of my trips. 🙂

  3. OMG, how morbid! Must have been surreal to witness this…and smell it too. I wonder how the mourners feel about the tourists on the other side. And I thought this whole scene couldn't be made even more surreal! What an experience!

  4. admin says: Reply


    Karen Halahan: thanks for your stories… 3 years in nepal for me and there are so many things which have been brought back to my memory through your blogs… good and bad, wish i could go back again! take care on your travels, look forward to hearing more.

  5. Jenn says: Reply

    I'm not sure I would have wanted to witness all of that personally–but sometimes curiosity gets the better of us. Sounds like a rather down day–but at least you can be thankful you are alive!! Breathe in, Breathe out. Ahhh so much to be thankful for!

    Cheers, Jenn

  6. AJ says: Reply

    Revisiting this post is as depressing as the first time. I wouldn't want my own cremation turned into a circus, but then I'd be dead so what would I care, right? I feel more for the mourners who have to live with the spectacle that their loved one's death has become.

    But then again, it might be cultural. Do you think they actually didn't mind the oglers with cameras? Anyhow, the place, though, has piqued my interest, despite its deathly sights and smells. Or perhaps cuz of them.

    Happy Halloween indeed, Reiza.

Leave a Reply to AJ Cancel reply