Nepali Times
Holiest of the holies


Pashupatinath both fascinates and frightens me. Here is beauty commissioned by art's greatest patron. But here too are Kathmandu's few real beggars, people ravaged by poverty and disease with death in their eyes.

Tradition has the most sacred temple of Pashupatinath as one of the lotuses that floated on the turquoise lake that once filled the valley of Kathmandu. More substantial tales have the city of Deopatan which flourished in the third century BC occupying the banks of the holy Bagmati and built about the shrine of Pashupatinath. Even then it was crowded with lesser shrines, pilgrims, resthouses and burning ghats.

Today Pashupatinath is a pagoda-type temple with heavily gilded roofs, heavy silver doors that are closed to non-Hindus, and is the centre of a vast complex of temples, shrines, dharmshalas, bathing and burning ghats held together by an aura of religious fervour and smoke from funeral pyres. But history records that in 1412, King Jaya Jyoti Malla constructed a three-storey temple over a Shivalinga of great antiquity and miraculous origin. Where the temple was built once stood a mound where a fabled cow was wont to go and offer her milk. Her intrigued cowherd decided to dig into the mound and of a sudden was consumed by a blaze of light that emanated from a Shivalinga with faces of Shiva carved on all four sides. So terrifying was one of the faces that an early invader who looked upon it took flight and died. It is miracles such as this that have contributed to the protective sanctity of Pashupatinath.

Termites so ravaged the temple that in 1684, Queen Ganga Devi was able to rescue only two floors of it. Twelve years later the temple was entirely reconstructed by King Birpalendra Malla. And since then it has been so added to and embellished by patrons, royal and otherwise, that it is almost impossible to define the original. The last Malla king, Jai Prakash Malla had the gold finial melted down to finance his war against the invading Gurkhas and such is the power of Pashupatinath that he lost.

God Pashupati is Shiva the Destroyer in one of his 1008 reincarnations, protector of animals. Appropriately, throngs of chattering monkeys swarm through the temples, feasting off offerings of rice, fruit and cooked food. They live on the wooded hill which is a part of the temple complex and once reached to the airport until recently called gauchar, the meadow of cows.

Pashupatinath both fascinates and horrifies me. For here is beauty commissioned by art's greatest patron-religion, so that hardly a stone is unchiselled or wood uncarved. The windows of even the humblest dharmshalas are ornamented with wasp-waisted deities and intricate floral designs; temple spires writhe with serpents of gold and on two of the platforms on which the dead are cremated are sixth-century stone carvings of rare beauty. But here too are Kathmandu's few real beggars, people ravaged by poverty and disease with death in their eyes, and the dying all around them.

There was a day I thought I recognised one, more by the old T-shirt he wore than by his withered face. Months before in Calcutta he had come to me for a job and shortly afterwards he had come again saying he was going home and was in need of clothes. I had given him an old T-shirt among other things and we laughed at its flamboyant design. Now, he said with haunting resignation he awaited death, for to die in Pashupatinath, feet caressed by the icy Bagmati, is to gain immediate entry to paradise. No, there was nothing I could do for him. But he would pray for me.

And I remember the old man who lay on a comfortable litter beside the river attended by the male members of his well-to-do family. They took it in turns to sit by him. And he demonstrated a remarkable unconcern for death by keeping time with an emaciated hand to the devotional songs being sung by Krishna worshippers at least half of whom were foreigners.
Foreigners who wish to see the temple are directed to climb the hill above Pashupatinath from where they can look down on the temple and its busy courtyard. If they are lucky they may have a glimpse into the shrine, but usually no sooner are they sighted than the silver doors are hurriedly shut.
A Westerner who accompanied me to Kathmandu long before the first hippy arrived, went with me to Pashupatinath to sketch the temple. She was barefooted, wore gypsy clothes hung with sacred beads and had her hair tied sadhu-like in a knot. We got separated and after a while as darkness settled over Pashupatinath I started a search for her which became frantic until there she was being escorted by a concert of priests. Apparently on an impulse she had entered the forbidden temple ignoring signs that said "Hindus only" and had reached the holy of holies before she was discovered. As guards were summoned and priests congregated she sank quickly to the floor and assumed a lotus position proclaiming that she was a Buddhist determined to meditate at the shrine. She threatened to go into samadhi and stop breathing. Anger turned to concern. Her death would desecrate the temple, so she was asked politely to hurry her meditation and leave. Looking at her I realised that here had been no ordinary prank. A deeply religious woman, she was exalted.

Not far from the temple are the houses of blockmakers and block-printers who turn out the typical Nepali hand-printed material known as Dumbarkumari. Dumbarkumari was the name of one of Jung Bahadur's daughters and she gave her name to the art by either patronising it or by being the first to wear it. Strangely the blockmakers and printers who practise their ancient craft in this Hindu stronghold are Muslims. One can take them a length of cloth and have it printed with blocks of one's own choosing. The colours are inflexibly orange, red and black.

When I first came to Kathmandu a famed mystic, the Shivapuri Baba lived on Pashupati Hill close by the airport. Troubled by Pashupati's overpowering reminder of death I went to meet him and was enchanted by a jovial old man with a flowing beard who claimed to be 150 years old. Life, he said was wonderful, to be lived and enjoyed without giving offence to others. He had done and seen so much in this century-and-a-half of living. Lest I should doubt his claim, he remembered Queen Victoria being made Empress of India and had seen the first trains. He had travelled far in search of contentment. Without conscious effort, without any profundity or obvious philosophy he exorcised the troubling aspects of Pashupatinath I had arrived with. He asked me to come back, but when I did some months later Pashupati had claimed him. But the woods are still filled with his message of living and one's capacity to enjoy it. There is too his humble hut-not a place of pilgrimage.

(Excerpted with permission from My Kind of Kathmandu, HarperCollins, 1999.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)