Death on a Holiday – Cremations in Kathmandu

Have you ever experienced a sight on holiday that has rocked you to your core? A sight, or site, that just makes you shake your head? Blink your eyes? And still not believe what you are seeing?

If not, then pack your bags and visit the Pashupatinath Temple Complex (PTC) in Kathmandu, and you will be stunned.

Preparing a pyre

The PTC is one of the most sacred places in the Hindu religion. Not only is it a collection of dramatic religious temples and buildings, but also the most important cremation site in Nepal.

This may not sound like your ‘typical’ tourist hot spot, but for an insight into a completely different culture, it is not to be missed.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I strolled through the gates of the complex. At first glance, it felt like any other tourist mecca as the walkway was lined with stalls selling every kind of tourist trinket, and touts shadowed our every move. Any fleeting concerns I had about being voyeuristic and disrespectful were quickly dispelled by the blatant commercialism of the sales people. I ran the gauntlet of the persistent hawkers, and strolled on towards the complex relatively guilt-free.

Before entering the site our guide, Nabin, had warned us not to carry any water or food in our hands, and to watch our handbags and packs closely. Apparently the resident monkeys are lightning fast and are famous for stealing anything that looks remotely like a meal or a drink. It was a hot day, and I was reluctant to leave my water bottle in the bus, but the touts were more than happy to sell bottled water along with the ‘genuine’ prayer wheels and mystical singing bowls.

The closer we got the main temple area, the hazier the air became.

IMG_0756.JPGAround the corner we strolled to be greeted by a row of 12 funeral pyres adjacent to a sluggish and decidedly murky Bagmati river. The crowds ebbed and flowed, and seemed to shimmer in the smoke. The monkeys ran to greet us and we doubled the grip on our bags, while the Holy men dazzled us with their brightly-coloured robes and body paint.

The sadhus, or holy men, were just like the ones you see in tourist brochures or in TV documentaries. To be a true holy man, they must never ask for anything and must simply exist on what life presents them. Needless to say there was an unspoken expectation that, for the opportunity to take their photo, they would be recompensed.  I am not sure how holy that is, but if it works for them, who am I to argue.

The Sadhu blesses us, or I think he does.

Nabin told us to follow him, we found a quiet space, sat down on the steps, and he explained the role of this complex in a Hindu’s religious life.

As far as ‘sacredness’ is concerned, this is as good as it gets. All Hindus aspire to be cremated here and have their ashes washed firstly into the Bagmati River, then to eventually join up with the Mother Ganges in India. Buddhists are also welcome to farewell life here, and to me, there is something very karmic by this openness and blending of religions.

As we sat and listened, we watched a grief-stricken family preparing the body of an elderly woman. She was laid out on her back, and wrapped on a wide board which rested on the stairs, her feet almost touching the water. About 20m away, a pyre was well alight with smoke wafting on the breeze.

Saying goodbye…

Again, I felt a little disrespectful observing such a personal and private rite, but maybe that is just my Western sensibilities clouding my perspective. So many Asian countries seem to live life loud and in public, unlike us buttoned-up Westerners.

Nabin explained the whole process, and the facts and figures relating to the complex:

  • 20-25 bodies are cremated here every day.
  • It takes four-to-five hours for a body to be completely consumed by the fire.
  • The pyre must be constantly tended by the eldest son or the next closest, male family member.
  • It costs around $USD150 to be burned on a wooden pyre, or you can book an electric cremation at an off-site facility for $USD40-50. All ashes are returned to the river regardless of the method of departure.
  • Families must return to the complex every year on the anniversary of the cremation to pay homage to their deceased family member.
  • The complex includes some simple accommodation where the faithful can stay and pass their last days.
Tending a pyre.

It was equal parts fascinating and horrifying to sit and watch the buzz of activity among the temples, and at the water’s edge. At the risk of sounding morbid, I would have liked to spend more time exploring and absorbing the feel of the site. There was a sense of care and pragmatism as family members stacked the wood onto new pyres, tended a body or clustered together saying their goodbyes. Maybe these rites and rituals all help with the grieving process, and remove the mystery of death? I am still thinking that through…

Under the beating sun, my thoughts soon turned to the need for a cool drink. Casting my eye to the other side of the river, I was amused and surprised to see a particularly enterprising local, filling up water bottles out of the river. Suddenly I wasn’t so thirsty after all!

Nabin explains the importance of the site.

With my head reeling from all that I had seen, I headed back to the bus, repeating “No thank you”, “No thank you”, “No thank you”, every few steps as I dodged and weaved through the souvenir touts and water sellers. Even their rampant commercialism could not detract or distract from the wonder of this experience.

While death may not be high up on everyone’s tourist hotspot list, it certainly gave me pause for thought and opened my eyes to the diversity of our World and culture.

Have you seen something that still resonates with you today?

April 2017

The Basics

What: If you are a foreigner, entrance fee is $USD10 per person.

Where: The Temple complex is located at Pashupati Nath Road 44621, Kathmandu 44600, Nepal

When: The Temple complex is open every day from 4a.m.-9p.m., and is closed in the middle of the day between 12p.m-5p.m. The best time to visit the temple is early in the morning or late in the evening.

IMG_0780Why: Go with open eyes and be prepared to learn, and be amazed.

How: I was part of a guided tour and that was a good option to learn more about facility. Onsite guides can be hired for around $USD10. Return taxi rides from the centre of Kathmandu cost around $USD15.

Who: The complex is open to everyone

Related Posts: For more chatter about amazing religious sites in Nepal, keep an eye out for a post I will upload in a week or two about the stunning Buddhist stupa in Kathmandu.

Related Blogs: For a good overview of all things spiritual in Nepal, have a look at:

Read About it: for a quiet read and a detailed explanation of the Hindu religion, check out Book Depository

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close