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The Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, always sparks travellers and tourists interests when they arrive here.
Apart from being one of the biggest Hindu temple complexes in Nepal, they also perform open cremations at Pashupatinath temple on a daily basis as it’s situated on the Bagmati river. A river which is considered holy to Hindus and Buddhists.
Now, this may put you off as death is a bit of a taboo subject in the West, but I wouldn’t be so quick to skip over it whilst you’re in Kathmandu.
There is so much more to this place than that aspect. You can wander the temple grounds, meet Sadhu’s (holy men) and learn about Nepali Hindu culture. And isn’t that what travelling is all about?
Experiencing, learning and embracing other cultures!
Here’s a quick guide of what to expect at the open cremation ghats in Pashupatinath temple and my top tips for your visit.
The importance of Pashupatinath Temple Kathmandu
Pashupatinath temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, who is in Hindu mythology, called the destroyer.
Similar to Varanasi, It’s one of the four most religious sites in Asia dedicated to Shiva that was built in the 5th century once a lingam was found here.
Built-in the 5th century, it is today as UNESCO world heritage site. It’s the largest temple complex in Nepal and stretches across both sides of the Bagmati river.
There are over 492 temples in Pashupatinath and shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva including Phallic shrines.
As a working temple, devotees flock each day in their masses to worship Lord Shiva in the main temple but I’m afraid non-Hindu’s are strictly forbidden to enter inside.
The importance of Pashupatinath temple is great to the locals of Kathmandu as this is the gateway to Nirvana for many and the passing place to the afterlife.
How to reach Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu
Pashupatinath Temple Kathmandu is located on the East side of the city, close to Boudhanath stupa and the Tribhuvan International airport.
You can easily grab a taxi to head here from any point in the city (everyone will know where you mean) or you can catch one of the local buses heading that way.
Local bus travel can be a bit of an adventure in Nepal and buses come in a variety of different shapes and sizes.
These will be sharing taxis/buses and shouldn’t cost more than 15 rupees a ride.
Local buses do surprisingly follow a route, so you may need to catch 2/3 to get to your destination.
In Nepal, there are only a few designated bus stops, most people just stand on the side of the road and wait.
Simply stand on the side of the road and look out for the person hanging out the bus and shouting.
Shout where you want to go and they will tell you if they’re heading that way or not. If so, great, hop on and pay. If not, wait for another bus.
Will I see open cremations at Pashupatinath temple?
Yes. Similar to Varanasi in India, the Pashupatinath temple perform open cremations daily.
Although it is completely your choice on whether you would like to witness the open cremations or not, it’s pretty hard not to and something I would urge you to do.
It’s not as scary as you think when you understand the meaning which I’ll go into below.
Actually, it’s more of a spiritual experience.
If you want to see some more detail on this you can see my post ‘What it’s like visiting the cremations ghats in Varanasi’.
Although it’s about India, its the same religious tradition here.
Why do Hindu’s openly cremate bodies and what’s the process?
In Hindu religion, cremating the body after death by a holy river will assure that all your sins are purged and you’ll be sent to Nirvana in the afterlife.
The Bagmati river, which is seen as holy to both Hindus and Buddhists, runs straight through this temple and so this is the holy river which is used for the cremations.
What caste (Hindu status/class) you are, depends on where you are cremated. You will see podiums all the way down the river.
If you’re higher caste, you get a better podium than someone with a lower caste.
The bodies are usually covered with the face showing to allow loved ones (usually a woman) to say goodbye and fill their mouth with rice. Then, the body is washed in the river and prepared for burning by the eldest male of the family.
The body will then be burned on the pyre and the ashes will be sent down the holy river.
The hardest part for me, aside from it being the first dead body I’ve seen, was watching the sorrow of the family.
It can’t be easy to do this, especially with so many people watching every day.
The body is ideally cremated 12 hours after death so it will be so raw. I felt like an invader and so didn’t watch for too long.
Some tips for witnessing open cremations at Pashupatinath temple and what not to do
Here are some things to expect and how to prepare to watch the open cremations;
- You may see the body but it will be covered up with cloth on a pyre – you may see the face but that’s it. The family traditionally will put rice and sweets in the mouth for their passing.
- The family may or may not be present. If they are, it can be an upsetting experience. They will be in mourning and there will be lots of crying, even wailing. This was the hardest part for me.
- You may see the body being lit on fire or it will already be burning
- The ashes will be flying about the temple, make sure you thoroughly wash your hair and clothes after your visit.
- Be respectful – you are attending someone’s funeral. That means don’t laugh, or joke around or shout unnecessary things.
- DO NOT take photos of the cremations. Although I saw some tourists doing this and it’s not as strict as Varanasi, it felt so wrong for me. Plus, it got me thinking why? Maybe it’s a surreal experience and doesn’t feel like it’s happening.
- Watch and learn – It may be hard to watch, but learning about Hindu culture and religious activities will expand your mind.
Meeting the Sadhu’s at Pashupatinath temple
Another reason why people visit this temple is to meet the sadhu’s or holy men who reside here.
They have picked a life of religion and so have given up on all worldly possessions (although some wear silver watches lol).
You’ll see them sitting around the many temples during the day.
As they don’t earn an income, they usually pose for photos with tourists to make a living.
But, as I could smell ‘something’ in the air, I think they spend this money smoking that more than food.
They will quote you a rather large price for a photo, around $10 (!!) but I would just give what you feel.
It was really fun to meet them and just have a chat. They blessed me with a vermillion dot and put a bracelet around my wrist for good luck.
When we were having our tour of Pashupatinath, we were taught all about the temple from our guide.
He was explaining that this is one of the biggest temples dedicated to Lord Shiva in the world, the burning process, how many temples were here and….the tradition of human sacrifices!
I’m sorry, what?
Traditionally the temple used to perform human sacrifices as an offering to the gods. But, this was a long time ago.
Nowadays, it’s mostly animals (poor things). But, it’s not uncommon that human sacrifice in Nepal is thought of as holy ritual.
In 2015, a boy was supposedly sacrificed in the hope of healing another teenage boy in the village.
A Hindu priest, who was the one that ordered the sacrifice and many others were arrested for the killing.
Important information for your visit to Pashupatinath temple
- The temple is open from 4am for visitors, although I’m sure you won’t be visiting at that time!
- Tourists are not allowed to enter the main temple as it is strictly for Hindu devotees, you even have to show your ID card to prove you have a Hindu surname. But, tourists are allowed to wander around the complex outside which has around 492 temples and 12 shrines to explore.
- It closes after the evening aarti at 7pm.
- As a living cultural heritage site, there are plenty of activities which happen daily that tourists can watch and get involved in. See here for more details.
- Prices are 1000 rupees per foreign tourist, for Indian, Nepali or SAARC country visitors it’s free.
- As a religious place of worship the dress code for Pashupatinath temple is strictly formal. As you will pretty much be attending someone’s funeral with open cremations taking place, it’s best to dress conservatively covering your shoulders and legs as much as possible. A scarf is a great option to cover shoulders if you have a strappy top.
Final thoughts on Pashupatinath Temple
Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu was like a classroom.
For me, earning about cultures and traditions is ultimately why I travel. But, it can be quite hard seeing things like open cremations and watching bodies burn.
I think that we treat death in the West as a taboo subject and it’s all very hidden. But here, it’s seen as part of everyday life.
Although it can be hard, it’s also interesting to learn about and see it in action.
To open your mind to different things is to grow and sometimes being a little vulnerable can make you stronger in the long run.
If you don’t want to see the cremations this is totally up to you. It’s hard not to see it but it’s not impossible either. In my opinion, it’s more of a spiritual experience to witness it than something that’s uncomfortable.
I would definitely recommend adding this temple on your itinerary in Nepal to learn a little more about Hindu culture and experience something out of this world!