Kathmandu is truly the most spiritual place I have ever been. There is a tremendous mix of Hindu and Buddhist influences and we were told if you look hard enough you can even find one or two Christians and/or Muslims. There is an almost overwhelming focus on prayer and reverence and finding a connection with God. (Please don’t take this to mean it is an “in your face” experience – it is really a peaceful and calming experience. No one comes out of the wood work and actually talks to you about God. You are really left to feel what you feel. No questions asked – no pressure.) Really, I guess I should more accurately say a connection with the gods – the Hindu faith has over 1 million gods. But of course we take our own experiences wherever we go and end up translating more than just the language and the currency into our own terms – so, for me personally, God it is.
There were prayer wheels and prayer flags everywhere. I guess I have never really experienced a physical manifestation of prayer. I am not Catholic so I have never used a rosary. But there is certainly something extremely comforting and connected about doing something while you pray. Spinning the prayer wheel makes praying feel more active. Seeing the flags makes it appear permanent. Prayer becomes more than just a whisper that often seems to disappear into thin air, remaining most alive in our hearts. Faith tells us our prayers are heard, but where do they go? The flags let them dance forever as active hopes and dreams. It’s more than just going through the motions.
The town is filled with temples of all sizes and shapes. I have mostly seen churches, mosques, and temples that are defined in a finite space. The temples in Kathmandu cover a wide birth of land and seem to go on forever – up stairs, then down stairs, and then around corners. They are not contained within walls or confined under roofs. They are open air arenas where you can literally feel the connection to the surrounding natural and spiritual worlds.
Of course, the fact that Kathmandu sits at the base of the Himalayan Mountains automatically makes the spiritual areas feel more majestic and more a part of nature. The structures are certainly man-made but they are God-inspired. And I did not feel smothered by Hinduism or Buddhism, but rather just a part of the beauty of trying to reach out to whatever god you know. Trying to find peace on earth in the human realm.
Here is a little bit about one of the temples we visited:
Pashupatinath Temple is the oldest Hindu temple in Kathmandu – it is the largest Hindu temple in honor of Lord Shiva. Pashupati was established in the 5th century and the priests who perform ceremonies here are largely Brahmins from South India. It is not known for certain when Pashupatinath Temple was founded. But according to Nepal Mahatmaya and Himvatkhanda, one day Lord Shiva grew tired of his palace atop Mt. Kailash and so went in search of a place where he could escape to. He discovered Kathmandu Valley and, without telling anyone, he ran away from his palace and came to live in the Valley. He gained great fame there as Pashupati, Lord of the Animals, before the other gods discovered his hiding place and came to fetch him. He disguised himself as a majestic deer and would not help the other gods when they asked for his help. When Shiva did not yield to their pleas, they planned to use force. God Vishnu grabbed him by his horns and they shattered into pieces. Vishnu established a temple and used the broken horns to form a linga on the bank of the Bagmati River. As time went by, the temple was buried and forgotten. Then a cow was known to have secretly sprinkled her milk over the mound. Apparently, when the cow herders dug around the spot, they found the lost lingas and again built a temple in reverence. (Thanks Wikipedia)
I am one of those people that changes the nature channel when the lion is about to eat the rabbit. I completely understand that it is the way nature works. I don’t take up arms against the lion. I just don’t want to see it. So, I am really glad that I did not understand that this temple has a crematorium along the banks of the Bagmati River. I would have avoided it at all costs. I would have not wanted to explain it to my children. I know that death is a part of life. I get it. But our kids have been largely unaffected by death so far in their lives and I want them to enjoy that for as long as they can. It will come full force in their lives soon enough. And it will surely hit them hard when it comes. So I have been an ostrich with my head in the sand – patiently delaying the inevitable. Basking in the glory of life.
But it was amazing. Really amazing. There were bodies being cremated. There was no wailing. No fanfare really. It was just a process. Part of life. Hindus, of course, believe in reincarnation. So ultimately there is no reason to be sad about the discarded body – the empty vessel. The soul has moved on to a new being. And, practically speaking, cremation has tremendous benefits in a world where there won’t always be room to bury the dead. I want to be cremated mostly because I don’t want to get eaten by bugs. So it was fascinating to see the whole process in action. It was remarkably calming.
When a someone in a family dies, the family members of the deceased must spend 11 days in the temple mourning. The temple is right next to the river. They wear white and stay together without touching anyone else, even each other – there is no physical contact – and, I believe, talking only to each other. This exemplifies the importance of family in Asian cultures. Can you imagine completely stopping your world for 11 days? I mean leaving your house – not driving your car – not going to the grocery store – not answering the phone – doing nothing but mourning. I am not saying that Westerners are unaffected by the loss of a family member or loved one – of course we are very affected – but we certainly do not give ourselves permission let life screech to a complete standstill. It’s fascinating.
My children were remarkably aware and accepting of what was happening. They were not overwhelmed by it. They were not scared by it. They just watched the burning mounds with respect and distant curiosity.
On the other side of the river, life was continuing on in full force. Tourists snapped pictures, children played in the river, Holy men gave blessings, and women washed laundry. It was a beautiful example of the full circle of things. Life imitating life.
There were literally hundreds of monuments beyond the river. Wear comfortable shoes if you come here. There is a lot of walking. But it is really a tremendous place. As I mentioned before, the Hindus have over a 1 million gods and this park is a tribute to many of them.You could see monument after monument after monument in a never ending testament to the devotion of the Hindu believers. The mini temples were often guarded by cement dog or lion statues and there was an sense of tranquility in the air.
You are not allowed to enter the main temple if you are not Hindu. In fact most foreigners are shown this site from only one side of the river. However, we were taken around to the entrance of the main temple. We were not invited in of course, but it was lovely to see it closer up.
This is another view of remarkable architecture that you can see from the park.
This is getting to be m.u.c.h longer than I thought it would be, so I will continue tomorrow. “See” you then..