Having learned my grandfather passed away the previous night, I was forced to make a decision. And it needed to be a quick one. I had one final day to explore Nepal and hadn’t visited the place I was most eager to experience and photograph: Pashupatinath. Situated outside Kathmandu on the banks of the Bagmati River, this is where the sadhus reside. Coincidentally, it is also where people go to honor and release the soul of those who have passed through public cremation. It is considered a holy place, which is why the sadhus are found gathered around there. Would I be able to handle it, I wondered? After discussing further with our leader, Gloria, I decided it could be a healing experience and thus, off we went.
Since traveling to India, I have been drawn to the sadhus both visually and spiritually. Sadhu means “holy” or “good man” and the Sanskrit root sadh means to “reach one’s goal.” Their appearance is stirring and can certainly catch you off guard if you are not aware of their ascetic lifestyle. Their eyes pierce through you and go straight to the core of your being. You feel it from your fingers to your toes, a current of energy that is even said to have a healing power.
Hindus have sadhus, and Buddhists have monks. Sadhus give up everything, renouncing the world, their families, their possessions, and their homes. They live off the generosity of others and commit to focusing on the Supreme Reality that is beyond our physical entities. Oftentimes, they sleep on riverbanks and then wake up to bathe, meditate and pray. Author Dolf Hartsuiker writes they are, “spiritual adventurers, ascetic warriors, devout mystics, occult rebels or philosophic monks, the sadhus are revered by Hindus as representatives of the gods, sometimes even worshiped as gods themselves.” Most of them wear very little clothing and some grow dreadlocks as a sign of renunciation and dedication to spiritual life. Their alluring smiles are contagious. In the moment, I feel comfortable sitting in the middle of them, laughing as people take photographs around me. One sadhu pats my head, smiles a dynamic smile, and says “you live long life.” I could have spent the whole day with them.
Before finding the sadhus, we had to walk through the cremation site on the outskirts of the temple. The place swarms with people, both foreign and local; there are monkeys all around and bulls resting in the streets. Here, on the stone steps leading down to the river, the sons of the deceased prepare the body: bathing it and covering it with holy offerings such as flowers and garlands. The women walk down the steps to the river, cup their hands together, and carry holy water over to pour on the face of their loved one. They immerse themselves in the process, remaining close to nature in both their living and dying. Once fully prepared, they cremate the bodies in a public ceremony and pour the ashes into the holy river, returning the body to its once natural state with Mother Nature. Essentially, they are offering their loved one’s soul to the gods so the soul can live on peacefully.
On one side of the bridge, the higher caste hold their ceremonies and on the other side, the lower caste. Our group witnessed this entire process from across the river of the lower caste, where many onlookers sat to survey the event. Naturally, I felt like an intruder. How dare I lay my eyes upon such a personal and private family event, making a spectacle of it with all those around me. Later, I found out that death is not meant to be a delicate subject concealed by the family of the deceased. In fact, most family members wear white for the following year to both honor the deceased and make the passing known within the community.
For Hindus, death is something to celebrate as they believe the soul continues to live on. Their beloved Bhagavad Gita says, “Even as man discards old clothes for the new ones, so the dweller in the body, the soul, leaving aside the worn-out bodies, enters into new bodies. The soul migrates from body to body. Weapons cannot cleave it, nor fire consume it, nor water drench it, nor wind dry it.” The soul is timeless and indestructible.
Below are some images from my visit to Pashupatinah. I am so thankful I was able to go and am even more excited to visit Varanasi some day- a holy place in India that is very similar. The experience was fiercely emotive, fascinating and beautiful. You will see pictures of sadhus, monkeys and a woman exiting the temple, appearing to wipe a tear from her eye underneath an umbrella. Out of respect, I decided not to include any images of the ceremonial sites.