From the tourist ghetto in the Thamel district, four of the Kathmandu Valley’s major UNESCO World heritage sites are within easy access. Back in 1996 Laila and I walked to all of them on our first visit to Kathmandu. Swayambhunath is 3 kilometers west, Patan about four kilometers south. On subsequent visits, I’ve gone by tuk-tuk or taxi, thanks to the air pollution which puts Kathmandu among the ten worst cities in the world. Many locals wear air filter masks as they walk about.
Pashupatinath is a 4.5-kilometer ride from Thamel east towards the airport. As one of the Hindu world’s major pilgrimage sites, it is an eye-popping experience for first-time visitors to Nepal from Europe or North America who are unfamiliar with Hindu worship and ritual. It can also be quite mystifying since the required context to understand what is going on is often missing.
[See the end of the post for some recommendations on what to read and watch before your visit.}
The site is made up of the main temple – the Pashupati Mandir – and a number of other shrines, temples, ghats, and sleep space for visiting pilgrims along the banks of the Bagmati River. On the satellite image above, the red arrow shows the location of the main temple. The river here plays the same religious role that the Ganges River does in northern India, especially Varanasi. As with the equally polluted Ganges, believers still bathe in its karma-erasing waters.
The one lasting memory visitors will have is of the cremations taking place in public view on the banks of the river. I took the photo below back in 1996; it shows mostly tourists sitting on one side of the river and watching a cremation ceremony on the other. Noteworthy is the fact that no one is pointing their camera lens in that direction. In 2018 more people, including locals, were using their smartphones to take snapshots of the goings-on. A decade of always-available devices has led to a change in attitude towards the quick taking of images by foreign visitors and by Nepalis themselves.
Another memorable aspect of a Pashupatinath visit are the sadhus who frequent the site, seemingly posing for tourists in choice locations with all the appropriate props. The “sadhu” – a wandering ascetic who has renounced the things of this world – in the image below looked like Krishna blowing into his flute as I took the photo. No sooner had I done so that he was approaching me for a “donation” for the image!
The steps which lead up to Gorakhnath on the east side of the river is one popular spot. Be ready to hand over 50 rupees! You have to wonder if this is just a day job for locals dressed as mendicants!
Most of the site is accessible to all, including non-Hindus. Only the main temple complex and the stretch of the river below it is off-limits. The temple itself was built in the mid-1600’s by the ruler of Bhaktapur, Bhupatindra Malla. He is the same king who commissioned the building of The Palace of the Fifty-Five Windows and the column with his statue on top which sits in front of the Golden Gate on Durbar Square.
There is evidence of earlier temple structures standing on the same sport going back to about 400 C.E. (that is, about 1600 years ago). After that, myth takes over and sometimes there is more than one story to explain the same thing in a totally different way! It does not seem to rattle the devout pilgrims. As the early Christian philosopher Augustine put it – “I believe in order that I may understand.”
The image below is of the core of the site. It shows a walled off area with a square structure on the east side of an open space. The red dot in the image indicates where I took the photo below. Walk past the “Entrance for the Hindus only” sign to the other side of the gat and you are inside the complex and looking at a large statue of Nandi, Shiva’s bull. Then come the temple and the steps leading down to the river and the cremation ghats. I have not found any video footage or photos taken inside the main temple area. It may be that cameras are not allowed.
And what is inside the temple itself that warrants such exclusive access? One story vaguely recalled is that there is a one-meter tall Shiva lingam inside engraved with a face on each of its four sides and with a fifth “invisible” face on the top. The stone lingam is Shiva’s penis and supposedly fell to this spot from the home of the gods up there in the sky. I’m not sure what prompted it to fall off or what it says about the composition of the rest of his body.
The name of the temple comes from two source words – pashu (“animals”) and pati (lord or master). So – the Master of the Animals. Locals pronounce it as pash patti, omitting the “u” sound. Here is one of a dozen different accounts of how the site came to be –
At the present place where the temple of Pashupati rests, there used to be a mound. A cow frequented this mound and offered her milk there. A cowherd noticed this strange occurrence and out of curiosity, dug at this spot. As he began digging a great light poured out. The light had come out from a linga with faces of Shiva carved on four sides. The people built a shrine to shelter this linga. This shrine came to be known as Pashupatinath, dedicated to Lord Shiva in his incarnation as Pashupatinath, the protector of animals. [online source here]
The next few images were all taken from the east bank of the Bagmati looking over to the Pashupatinath Mandir and surrounding buildings. The copper base but gold-covered roofs of the temple set the scene, as does the cremation area – Arya Ghat – at the bottom of the steps leading from the elevated temple area.
The first image I took in 2006; the beige/yellow walls have received a white paint job more recently!
The middle of the three shrines at the bottom of the temple steps above Arya Ghat seems to garner the most attention from Hindu visitors. I am not sure what is inside. I have not been able to confirm my hunch that a stone Shiva figure – named Virupaksha – is inside. It is an ancient sculpture said to have Mongoloid features which apparently predates the arrival of the Shiva cult some 1500 years ago.
On the steps of the ghat, onlookers watched a woman perform prescribed death rituals for the deceased – her husband or father? – wrapped up in the golden cloth and stretched out on the board sloping down to the river. In the Hindu world, it is the eldest male who plays the main role in the cremation rites of the deceased.
At the top of the board is a Shiva lingam that is the focus of her devotion. At the bottom of the board, some white cloth covers the feet of the corpse. Dipping the feet three times into the waters of the sacred river, a tributary of the Ganges River, is another essential element in the ritual.
See the end of this post for a link to an informative YouTube video which explains the cremation ritual as it is practised at Pashupatinath.
The Bagmati is not a river fed by glacial streams so in April when I was there this year its level was quite low. Thanks to the monsoon season (June to August), the water level rises considerably and the river appears to be cleaner during the autumn. I was surprised to see garbage floating down a river held to be sacred. The litter along its banks and in the forested slopes on the east side were also depressing to see.
There are to footbridges that take you from one side of the river to the other. We had come into the site from an entrance at the southeast corner after our guide parked his vehicle nearby.
Next to the southernmost bridge on the temple side of the river is a minor temple, the Vatsala Mandir. It s central object is a stone bowl representing a female version of Shiva; it attracts many devotees and petitioners.
On the wall of the Vatsala Mandir, a dancing corpse looks down at the pilgrims and tourists with his erection. Dead but still very much alive!
On Durbar Square in Bhaktapur is another temple dedicated to Vatsala; it was one of those which was completely destroyed in the 2015 Earthquakes.
Directly across the river from the Pashupati Temple is the row of identical shrines you see in the image below. There are eleven in all and inside each is a stubby cylinder. It represents Shiva’s penis and is the focal point of worship. The stone vessel in the Vatsala Temple probably represents the yoni, the female equivalent of the lingam.
Back on the temple side and to the north, the rocky rise above the Surya Ghat is called Kailash Hill. Above the river bank are caves where sadhus stay during their time at Pashupatinath. The ultimate time to visit the site both for devout Hindus – sadhus or not – and photographers keen on capturing an incredible expression of world culture would be during Maha Shivaratri. (In 2018 it was in February.) Check out YouTube for some fascinating footage. About a million people show up!
There is much more to see at the site and the one hour that I spent there was just not enough. See below for the explanation – and my suggestion on how to do the site justice.
A guidebook – even if you are Hindu but especially if you are not – is essential to provide some context and explanation to what it is you are looking at. My digital copies of Lonely Planet Nepal and The Rough Guide To Nepal were on my iPad and I would consult them before setting off for my visit. They both include brief sections on Pashupatinath and useful maps of the site to help you plan your trajectory.
I had one other source on my iPad and it proved to be the best of all – the 2017 pdf copy of David Ways’ Kathmandu Valley Guidebook.
I turned to the book often during my week visiting the various sites around the Kathmandu Valley and benefitted from the research he has done but was also directed to interesting places and features that I would otherwise have missed.
Unfortunately, my visit to Pashupatinath was with a guide and a small group. Our visit lasted about an hour and I did not get a chance to explore the site the way I wanted to. I should have stayed behind when they moved on to Boudhnath or gone back on my own a few days later and spent the three or four hours there that Pashupatinath deserves.
My advice to you, especially if you are into photography – take a taxi to the site and visit it on your own, preferably in the late afternoon and towards dusk and ramble around looking for neat perspectives and angles to shoot from and stopping every once in a while to read your guidebook and figure out where you are.
Pashupatinath Cremation Ritual on YouTube:
Click on the image below to access a YouTube video explaining the basics of a Hindu Cremation ritual at Pashupatinath: