We descend from the Stupa amidst golden statues of the Buddha, ribbons of prayer flags, and tourists. Monkeys swing in trees and dig through garbage on both sides of the trail as we maneuver through the crowds returning to our taxi. Many of the pilgrims ascending past us heading toward the stupas have large chunks of red or black paint on their foreheads where most Hindus have a small dot – the bindi, which symbolizes wisdom. The markings – red if married and black if single – are on as many Europeans wearing khakis and plaid as Nepalis dressed in brilliantly coloured saris, showcasing that we are in a religious tourism hotspot.
Our taxi driver sees us coming and pulls to the walkway next to the road as we emerge from the masses. We hop in and enjoy another ride that would cost money in a North American theme park. The disorientation starts with the English pattern of driving on the road’s left side. Since there are no lines even in this major city, going on the left is more of a general guideline than a rule. Our taxi weaves in and out of traffic, avoiding hives of small electric motorcycles, oncoming traffic and the occasional sacred cow content to rest in the middle of a busy street. I even caught a glimpse of a three-wheeled retrofitted Jeep reminiscent of a Mr. Bean episode. Despite my ethnocentric judgments, the lack of stop signs and lights seems to work flawlessly here. In my short time in the country, I have not seen a single accident, nor have I witnessed any vehicles with evidence of impact. This would be the opposite in my home city of Edmonton, where, especially after winter, and despite a rigid system of enforced traffic laws, damaged vehicles are everywhere. Controlled enforcement provides a sense of order and allows Canadians to visit foreign lands and condescend. While accidents abound and road rage reigns in our North American streets, Nepalis seem calm and collected as they negotiate their daily commutes wearing masks to protect their lungs from the dust. Like a flock of birds, they twist and turn majestically in every direction, occasionally letting out a call with the sound of their horn. Cars, busses, bicycles and pedestrians flow and interact organically according to splendid communal instincts.
In twenty minutes, we arrive at the Pashupatinath Temple along the banks of the sacred Bagmati River. Michel is still working through jet lag and decides to remain in the taxi for a short nap. I step out of the vehicle and find myself in a Geographer of Religion’s dream. My guide for this adventure is Hiragyan, who goes by Hyra. Dhan is certified to guide treks but is not allowed also to accompany tourists to cultural sites. This keeps more people employed in Nepal, as guides are some of the best-paid workers in the labour force. Hyra guides me along a path through small shops as Nepalis on both sides beg me to stop and buy jewelry, an artifact or a work of art.
We shortly arrive at the temple complex. As a monkey transcends along a brick wall, a young black haired girl in a ponytail chases a massive flock of pigeons around a courtyard next to the temple. The birds are so numerous they appear to be an organic carpet, and as the child runs around troughs made of divided plastic barrels in the centre of the square, the birds flee, causing the piazza to look like an avian whirlpool. As she laughs and runs, I take in the entire scene of this UNESCO Heritage site – the most sacred place in all of Nepal and the most important temple on Earth for those who worship Lord Shiva.
The main temple is a large pagoda topped with a golden spire surrounded by a landscape of smaller pagodas, temples and statues. The temple complex has four primary doors, and we face the western entrance. Though I cannot enter without converting to Shivaism and following a laundry list of cleansing rites, I am beckoned to draw near to admire the ornate artwork depicting Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu.
Death is everywhere here – in every ritual, in the symbols affixed to statues, and in the particulates of the atmosphere itself. Often the elderly will arrive before dying to spend their remaining days in the temple before their last spiritual journey down the Bagmati River to the more sacred Ganges. Many believe that those who spend their final days at this place will be reincarnated as humans, no matter how they have lived their lives.
Hyra asks me to follow him around the structure, and so we navigate south then east, crossing the small sacred river over a pedestrian bridge to the eastern shore. Here death confronts all five senses, especially smell. All along the western bank of the river, open-air cremations are taking place. Those cremated closer to the temple have a better chance of a good reincarnation. The wealth of those who can afford this opportunity is conspicuous – displayed through the numbers of brilliantly coloured flowers adorning the pyres. Downstream families gathered to say goodbye to loved ones alongside more simple pyres.
As we silently hover on the bridge taking in the ceremonies, ash-covered sadhus, ascetic yogis hoping to be liberated from the cycle of life and death through meditation, hover nearby, hoping we might pay a few dollars for a picture with them. We stayed here quietly watching as priests prepared a pyre directly in front of the temple for a woman whose body patiently waited as wood, flowers, and fuel were artfully crafted into a vessel forged to carry this soul into another life.