Where Spirits Soar to the Heavens

Where am I Issue 198 May, 2018

You’ll find huge crowds here during a major Hindu festival that’s held every year in February or March, as well as during another major festival in September. While the latter one is observed by women with lots of singing and dancing, preceded by some pretty severe fasting (for which they prepare a night ahead with heavy gorging on rich food), the former is highlighted by the presence of many severe-looking sadhus (ascetics) from all over the country and from neighboring India, who are mostly adorned with unkempt dreadlocks and ash-smeared bodies and faces. Some, called Nagas, are naked, and they demonstrate their strength (gained through lives lived with rigorous celibacy) by lifting heavy rocks with their dirty-looking penises!

The site of these two big annual events is a large 281-hectare complex of numerous temples, with the main temple, which houses a six-foot-tall, four-headed lingum (phallic symbol of the god of creation and destruction), being one of the finest examples of pagoda-style temples in the country. Although a Malla king, Bhupatindra, is said to have built the temple in 1653, an inscription discovered here says that there was an earlier temple dating back to the fifth century, which supposedly was the work of a Licchavi king by the name of Supus Padeva. The huge cultural importance of this site has been recognized by UNESCO as a monument having universal value.

The Bagmati River runs alongside the complex, and one will, at any time of the day or night, find thick smoke swirling over one or the other of a number of pyres located on its banks. Look closer, those are spirits soaring to the heavens above. Hindus consider themselves to be assured a journey to paradise if their last rites are done in this most sacred of all cremation sites in the country. Once, during the days of royalty, one section was reserved only for those of blue blood, but now that, too, is open to commoner and higher-ups alike. In addition to mourners, you’re also likely to see some tourists on the opposite bank watching the proceedings with morbid curiosity, and clicking a few memorable pictures.

Coming back to the main temple, there’s a bull facing the front doors. It’s gold-plated, and is pretty ancient, and it’s the vehicle of the god of creation and destruction. Once upon a time, not too far back, it was the custom to have only priests from south India do all the pujas, a custom introduced by some king in the sixth century, but then voices were raised as to why this should be continued, and I guess there are Nepali priests now doing the honors. As mentioned before, you’ll find many ancient temples in the complex, dedicated to various gods and goddesses. One of these has been transformed into a home for the aged. There are accommodation arrangements, too, for mourners to live at the site for the required thirteen days of mourning.

Now, let’s talk more about the main temple, the centerpiece of the entire complex. Its gold plated roof is two-tiered, and there’s a golden gajur (pinnacle) on top. There are four doors that are richly embossed in silver, and the wooden tundals (struts) are also richly carved. Facing the temple, on one side, is a collection of silver statues of various kings in postures of worship, with folded hands and on their knees. A temple just across has an immense figure of a deity, and what’s more, he has an immense penis fully engorged! Naturally, this is where women can seek blessings for more fertility. Considering that the cremation ghat in this complex is the most important site for a Hindu’s last rites, and that you have gods here who offer the blessings of creation, one can say that the complex is indeed a fitting home for Shiva, the god of creation and destruction.