Ashes to Ashes, Dust to…the Bagmati River

A corpse entirely wrapped in white and covered by a saffron cloth is carried on a ladder-like gurney to the river bank. The family closes in around it, weeping, lamenting the loss of a beloved son who was alive only yesterday. On the other side of the holy Bagmati river, across from the Hindu Pashupatinath Temple, a crowd of locals have gathered to watch the spectacle, silently following one funeral after another. In a city where entertainment is scarce and religion is fervent, this show is as good as any.

The cocoon-like body is lifted off the stretcher and lowered onto a sloping stone, almost touching the water. The feet and face are unwrapped and the plastic bag underneath ripped open, so that the relatives can sprinkle holy river water onto the exposed skin. Sticks of incense are lit and placed around the body, and together with sacred red tika powder the soul is prepared for its final journey. After many blessings and prayers, the corpse is carried to a stack of logs where it will burn until only ashes remain, which will then be pushed into the river for the ultimate release.

Just like in Varanasi in India, this is where the Nepalese Hindus come to die. There’s even a hospice for the terminally ill right next to the cremation ghat. You know, just to make sure. Because passing away in Pashupatinath and having your ashes disposed of in the extremely sacred, but disgustingly polluted Bagmati River, guarantees your entry into Nirvana.

Body wrapped like a cocoon

Right in front of the temple, another funeral pyre is being prepared. Like a four-post bed, it is wrapped with silk and extensively covered with garlands of orange carnations. A bed is made with sheets of white, yellow and saffron cloth – a scene fit for a queen. From the distance, the body is carried forward. While completely wrapped in orange, the face of the old woman is left bare. Her three sons dip her feet in the water, and carry out a rite similar to the previous one, using incense and red powder. Before the corpse is placed onto the logs, and before the fire is lit, the body is circumnavigated clockwise three times around the pyre. Once laid onto the correct spot, her children kiss her forehead, and step back, so the untouchable funeral master can light the fire on top of her. Flames lick her face as throngs of curious villagers press closer to see her burn. And finally, the hay underneath her is lit, to start the cremation process.

Circumnavigation

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Two hours later, there is no sign of the body, and her ashes together with the remains of the logs are shoved into the river. A plastic bag, containing left over garlands, is also hurled into the water. And just like that, the souls become clean, while the river turns increasingly filthy.

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