Warning: This article is about Hindu cremation ceremonies, with some pictures.
For months now, I’ve been traveling in countries where religion has much more meaning in and for daily life than I am used to – at basically every moment, one is surrounded by it, one can feel it, see it, touch it. I am therefore automatically thinking much more about religion than I would ever have done before, and about my own relationship to it. I’d never have thought that I would ever write about religion, but then, traveling changes a person.
I’ve got my own attitude towards religion, and think that at the end, all great world religions say and intend the same thing (if you only go back far enough), even though that isn’t necessarily evident after centuries of interpretation and exploitation. A few days ago, I was invited to a private lecture by a Tibetan (Buddhist) monk. At the end he said something which I find very remarkable and true: “In life, it doesn’t matter if you are Buddhist, or Christian, or Hindu, or Muslim, or don’t believe in God in the first place; what matters are Ethics”. I was surprised to hear this from a high-ranking monk, was glad that there was no dogma here, and think that this phrase summarizes my own beliefs pretty well.
Every religion has sacred sites which to visit is the most noble aim of believers – Mekka, Jerusalem, Rome, Varanasi, are some of them. For Hindus, Pashupatinath – ca. 6km from Kathmandu’s center – is such a site, the sacred center of Hindu faith in Nepal, because here is the temple of Shiva, the most significant deity in Hindu belief, and to be cremated here is considered to be especially desirable.
In Hinduism, nearly everybody is cremated after death – the exceptions being sadhus – holy men – and children under the age of 5, both of which are considered to be of pure spirit. The burning of widows was abolished in 1829, although there are cases still today.
The cremation is done a few hours after death. First the body, clad in white clothes and covered by an orange sheet, is carried to the holy river Bagmati, where the feet (considered the most unclean part of the body) and the face are being washed. The family take their leave from the dead; then the body is carried to the funeral pyre. The platforms for these are separated by importance: The largest was for the cremation of the king (Nepal has been a republic since 2008, the platform is no longer in use); next to it a platform for other royalty, politicians, VIPs and rich people; then, separated by a bridge, come the platforms for all others.
The sons or other close family members carry the litter around the pyre 5 times – representing the five elements fire, water, air, earth and space. The fire is started at the mouth – which is where the first and last breath are passing through, and therefore a special part of the body. Now the dead is covered by straw; after ca. 4 hours the cremation is complete, and the ash is given into the holy river (for this reason, there are often people looking for gold in front of the platforms – gold teeth…)
The closest family members then spend 13 days in a dark room; the men shave their heads; for 1 year, the mourners are dressed in white, are not permitted to eat certain foods, and are not allowed to enter a temple during this time. A temple should be uplifting, which is considered to be inappropriate during the time of mourning.
Next to the stone of cleansing, there is a hospice. When the hour of dying draws near, the person is placed on the stone – to die at this place is considered the highest honor for Hindus, and virtually guarantees the direct ascendancy, leaving the cycle of death and rebirth, the end of re-incarnation.
Bathing in the holy river Bagmati is considered second in honor to being cremated here, but nowadays, the bath cannot be said to “cleanse” in any hygienic sense of the word…
Photography is allowed, but should be done with discretion and consideration for the mourners. I left my big camera at home and only took some pictures with a Compact camera from a distance, not really feeling great doing it. At the same time, I found the entire experience fascinating – I think, because here, there is so much more openness around death and the dead, I am used to closed coffins and cremations behind a wall.