Bodhnath is an enormous stupa just outside Kathmandu & it is like nowhere else I have ever been. Everyday thousands of devotees, under the watchful eyes of Buddha, come to circumnavigate the giant dome. The lane around the stupa is lined with shops selling all the necessary paraphernalia needed for a Buddhist life: Incense, singing bowls, drums, butter lamps & Tibetan prayer flags. The nearby village of Boudha is inhabited by Tibetan refugees who have fled the tyranny of China’s occupation of their homeland.
To even the most casual observer the sacredness is palpable. Incense burns, and as people circumnavigate the base their hands are turning the hundreds of prayer wheels. Just inside the base there are monks chanting in maroon robes. It is magical.
A short distance from Bodhnath is the village of Pashupatinath, the home of Nepal’s most holy temple. The temple sits on the holy river Bagmati where it makes it way, through the Himalayas, to meet up with India’s Mother Ganga: the great Ganges.
The Bagmati is a fetid trickle of muddy water lined by concrete funeral Ghats. This is where Nepalis, who can afford it, get cremated. I am the only foreigner & I feel just as much the outsider that I know I am. This is a place that one really feels death. and life.
I was hesitant to take photos. It seems intrusive and disrespectful. I was watching quietly from a distance when not one, but two, locals came up to me and encouraged me to take this photo.
Across the river & up on a hill there are more temples and dozens of elaborately carved stone huts . These stone structures were once used for sati, the now outlawed practice of widow burning. The widow dons her wedding sari or other finery & throws herself on a pyre. Although most Sati’s were voluntary some were not. Some women were coerced through social pressure or, worse yet, forcibly thrown onto the pyre. As I looked down the seemingly endless arches of the Satis, I couldn’t help but think of the women who burned alive inside them.
All along the hillside there are Sadhus. Sadhus are holy men who have abandoned their families & worldly possessions to pursue a life of asceticism & religion. They use a lot of Bhang (potent marijuana) to assist in the quest of enlightenment, which also explains their cheerful dispositions. Most dress in saffron & have colorful adornments, long dreadlocks curled high upon their heads. A rare sect called the aghori paint their bodies in human ash, hovering near cremation sites to gain access to the ghostly body paint.
So what to make of a place so foreign & surreal? So stinking & repugnant & yet, fascinating? Where death is so real, so close. Is it a good thing or a bad thing?