My recklessness has no limits, so I decide to hire a mountain bike and venture into Kathmandu traffic, which is not as bad as I thought. I head to the east and, after dealing with some strenuous ups and downs and the bad attitude of truck drivers disrespectful of any other vehicle, let alone of bicycles, I step away from the traffic and land in the relative tranquility of the suburbs where I am witness of a radical change from the city to the rural Nepal. My butt also experiences a radical change after an hour sitting on the hard seat.
After 45 minutes of hard pedaling I arrive at Pashupatinath, the most important Hindu sacred precinct of the country, home to one of the most famous Shiva temples in the Indian subcontinent. Pashupati, the lord of the beasts, has become increasingly important for the Nepalese who visit the site before a trip or an important mission to receive the blessing of this deity. This sacred place is famous for the cremations that are celebrated on the banks of the Bagmati River, a river as sacred to Pashupatinath as the Ganges is to Varanasi. From 6 am to 7 pm funeral pyres are constantly lit under the eyes of hundreds of Nepalese and of some tourists hungry for an original photo reportage. On the numerous ghats – the steps leading to the river – the altars used for funeral ceremonies lay alongside the flow of the water. Some of these altars are used by poor families, while others are reserved for the rich and noble; each caste has its own cremation field. Some cheeky monkeys frolic nearby, waiting.
I sit on a long flight of steps on the opposite bank, where dozens of curious tourists have already positioned themselves to attend a ceremony that is being prepared. The waiting is long and allows me to stroll amongst beautiful temples with enigmatic shapes and inscriptions, tantric images and erotic scenes. At some point, those who seem to father and son carry the body of an old man down the steps, dipping his feet in the water in order to sanctify it. The scene is slightly grotesque, the dead man’s expression is absorbed and his mouth is open; his skin has already assumed a pale color.
On one of the platforms people are dutifully preparing woven wood for a pyre; I mistakenly think it is for the body of the elderly, but all of a sudden a group of people carries a young woman and lays it on the wood. What is probably her husband sprinkles the body, covered almost entirely by a white veil, with colorful spices while a pair of women do the same with flowers. The young woman’s beautiful face is uncovered and the man, after filling the pyre with small twigs for easing ignition, sets fire by putting one of the lit twigs into her mouth, and says his last prayers. Everything takes place in complete silence, family members do not shout or cry, just meditate and observe, and this makes death seem the most natural thing in the world. Tourists take pictures from the other bank of the river, but discretely and with zoom lenses so as not to offend the mourners.
Smoking has now completely covered her body and the smell of burning flesh permeates the air. There is a flat, perceptible silence. I decide to visit other temples within a radius of 500 meters from the ghats. In one of these I make the acquaintance of one of the many sadhus, the holy Hindu ascetics, with their orange robes and their faces tainted by the many pujas. One of them, a yogi – yoga teacher – who calls himself Baba Kalabar, delights me with some yoga postures that make him look like a circus contortionist. He has a mouse-like face, a blissful and genuine smile, he is dressed in yellow and carries along all his possessions, which consist of a small crumpled and half-empty backpack and an iron bar with a ring at each end that helps him in his impossible body postures. His face is almost completely painted in yellow, as well as his hair, long and smeared with a strange oily substance, while the palms of his hands are stained in red. His body is covered with a patina of indelible dirt, and around his neck he wears a couple of thick coral necklaces for Hindu prayers. I take the opportunity to immortalize him several times, along with his companion, a sadhu dressed in red with a okra yellow turban on his head, also smiling and very helpful. I take my leave, promising to send the pictures taken via post. I write down the address, Baba Kalabar, Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, while I wonder if the postman delivers mail to these dedicated hermits.
Once I am back on the banks of the river, the woman’s body is reduced to a heap of ashes and most of the onlookers are gone, while smoke continues to cloud the air and the various pilgrims tend to their activities of all time, regardless: the offers, the purifying bath in the holy waters, the incenses and so on. Her ashes are later assigned to the Bagmati River and will follow its course until it flows into the sacred Ganges.
I get back the bicycle, take a stroll in the local market and then move further away from the city, destination Bodhnath, home to the largest stupa in all of Nepal and one of the largest in the world.
Finally, after a good hour of cycling through paths full of stones, I arrive in Bodhnath main street. Various little roads lead to the square entrance, in the center of which lies the famous stupa, resembling that of the Swayambhunath but with a much broader perimeter. I leave the bike tied under a portico, pay the entrance fee and dive into a multitude of small shops that surround the majestic sanctuary, adorned with hundreds of prayer flags.
This is the religious center of the Tibetan population in the country, and it is where most of the Tibetan community lives. The presence of monks and devotees is high, they come from all over Asia. Several dirt roads lead to various gompas – the monasteries – some a couple of miles away, others only a few hundred meters. I choose one close enough and almost deserted, no tourists around, and I take the opportunity to take my shoes off, as the custom requires, and enter. I sit down in silence amongst meditating monks, and in doing so I enjoy the mystical atmosphere amongst people who radiate an addictive peace and tranquility that you breathe in the air, and it fills the spirit.
I could sit here for hours, listening to these songs that follow the rhythm given by the elder lama who is sitting on an elevated stool. Behind him, huge golden statues depicting the Buddha fill the back wall, and under each there are several burning candles and a large photo of the Dalai Lama. The other walls and ceiling are decorated with paintings on cotton with strong outlines that recall life scenes of the enlightened, already seen in the famous Thankas, the traditional paintings on canvas framed in fabric depicting subjects related to Buddhism. Often, the murals show scenes from mythological times: ancient lamas and mandalas, the diagrams that help the art of meditation and represent the various forces of the universe. Another of the classic subjects of the murals is the ‘wheel of life’, which represents Buddha’s infinite knowledge and wisdom, and the road that the human being has to take in order to get out of samsara, hell, and enter nirvana, heaven. Colorful silk banners with flaps showing inscriptions in Tibetan and Chinese language hang from the ceiling and on the columns. Occasionally a monk leaves the monastery only to return with bowls full of food, mostly seeds, legumes and rice, which he distributes amongst those present. I find the whole thing moving and I feel very fortunate to be able to share with them, if only for a few tens of minutes, a crumb of their disciplined lives devoted to self-sustenance, prayer and worshipping of the Buddha.
Outside, the sun is setting relentlessly, and this is a great time for Bodhnath. The hordes of tourists go back to town and the place regains its Buddhist character of all time: the inhabitants gather to chat while they perform the ritual of walking around the stupa clockwise, as tradition commands. The shops selling Tibetan handicrafts are closing their doors.
The trip back to the city is less hard than I thought – the legs are strong now – but it is characterized by much more traffic than on the first leg. I spend the evening in the hotel, resting from the heavy day.