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Photo of the Month - exploring the Story behind the Image...

Sadhu at Pashupatinath Temple

Sadhu at Pashupatinath Temple

Year: 2012, Month: July

Nepal > Bagmati > Kathmandu

This photograph is a pleasing composition of a sadhu (wandering Hindu holy man) walking past a row of identical stone chaityas (small stupas) on the banks of the Bagmati River, at the holy Hindu temple complex at Pashupatinath, just to the east of the Nepalese capital city of Kathmandu. The chaityas are all dedicated to the god Shiva, and each contains a small shiva lingam. The sadhu is dressed in a orange lunghi. Orange or saffron are the colors associated with the Hindu religion in India and Nepal. His hair and entire body are smeared with vibhuti (sacred ash). He wears the sacred thread (yajnopavita) placed over his left shoulder and under his right arm. The cord, which is made of three threads, each of nine twisted strands, is fabricated of cotton for Brahmans, hemp for Kshatriyas or wool for Vaishyas. His upper arms, chest, and forehead are decorated with other Hindu holy symbols.

Nepal's most important Hindu temple stands on the banks of the holy Bagmati River, on the eastern fringes of Kathmandu, not far from the Tribhuvan Airport. Pashupatinath is also one of the most important Shiva temples on the subcontinent and draws devotees and sadhus from all over India. Shiva is the destroyer and creator of the Hindu pantheon and is best known in his 'terrible' forms, particularly in Nepal as the cruel and destructive Bhairab, but he also has peaceful incarnations including those of Mahadev and Pashupati, the lord of the beasts. As the shepherd of both animals and humans, Pashupati shows Shiva's most pleasant and creative side. Pashupati is considered to have a special concern for Nepal and, accordingly, he features in all official messages from the king. Before commencing an important journey, the king will always pay a visit to Pashupatinath to seek the god's blessing. Nepal's Dalit (untouchable) community was only allowed access to the shrine in 2001. You can visit Pashupatinath as a half-day trip from central Kathmandu or en route to Bodhnath, as the two sites are an interesting short walk apart. Many of the temple buildings are closed to non-Hindus.

Pashupatinath Temple
Non-Hindus are not allowed in the main temple, which dates from the 19th century but the large Nandi, Shiva's bull, which can be glimpsed by all through the temple gateway is about 300 years old. The black, four-headed image of Pashupati inside the temple is said to be even older; an earlier image was destroyed by Mughal invaders in the 14th century. Head east of the taxi stand to the riverbanks, where you can look down into the temple from the terraced hillside on the opposite bank. En route to the riverbanks you'll pass the Panch Deval (Five Temples), a former five-shrined complex that now acts as a social welfare centre for a heartbreaking collection of destitute local elderly. They are very friendly, and the Panch Deval is well worth visiting. A donation box offers a way for visitors to directly contribute. The ticket office for the temple complex is just before the entry to the riverbank.

The Riverbanks Of The Bagmati
The Bagmati is a holy river and, like Varanasi on the Ganges, Pashupatinath is a popular place to be cremated. The burning ghats (called Arya Ghats) immediately in front of the temple, north of the footbridges, are for the cremation of royalty, though you'll often see ritual bathing taking place in the river here. Ten members of the royal family were cremated here after the massacre on the 1st of June 2001. Just north of the main bridge across the Bagmati, but still on the western bank of the river, is the 6th-century Bachhareshwari Temple, with Tantric figures, painted skeletons and erotic scenes. It is said that at one time the Maha Shivaratri festival activities included human sacrifices at this temple. The six square cremation ghats just south of the bridges are for the common people and there is almost always a cremation going on here. The log fires are laid, the shrouded body lifted on top and the fire lit with remarkably little ceremony. It's a powerful place to contemplate notions of death and mortality. Right at the southern end of the western embankment, past the funeral pyres, is a half-buried, but still quite beautiful, 7th century standing Buddha image. Two footbridges cross the Bagmati River. Facing the temple from across the river are 11 stone chaityas (small stupas) each containing a lingam (a phallic symbol of Shiva's creative powers). From the northern end of the embankment you can see the cavelike shelters, once used by hermits and sadhus. These days the yogis (yoga masters), babus and sadhus head for the elaborately frescoed Ram Temple, next to the main bridge, especially during the festival of Maha Shivaratri.

The Terraces
Climb up the steps from the eastern riverbank to the terrace, where you can look down into the Pashupatinath Temple from several convenient benches. The central two-tiered pagoda dates from 1696. Look for the enormous golden trident rising up on the right (northern) side of the temple and the golden figure of the king kneeling in prayer under a protective hood of nagas (snake spirits) on the left side. Behind the temple, you can see a brightly coloured illustration of Shiva and his shakti (female aspect) looking out over the temple. At the northern end of this terrace is a Shiva lingam on a circular pedestal. A finely featured face of the god has been sculptured on one side of the lingam. It is an indication of the richness of Nepal's artistic heritage that this piece of sculpture, so casually standing on the grassy terrace, is actually a masterpiece dating from the 5th or 6th century! The hillside is now home to the Mrigasthali deer park, a fitting blending of nature and religion, as Shiva is said to have frolicked here once in the shape of a golden deer.

Gorakhnath & Vishwarup Temples
The steps continue up the hill from the terraces to the Gorakhnath Temple complex at the top of the hill. A red and white shikhara, fronted by a towering Shiva trident, is the main structure, but surrounding this is a jungle of temples, sculptures and chaityas, with Shiva imagery everywhere. Images of the bull Nandi stand guard, tridents are dotted around, lingams rise up on every side and monkeys play in the treetops, creating a peaceful and evocative atmosphere. Non-Hindus can't enter the Vishwarup Temple, off to the east, so continue instead beyond the Gorakhnath Temple down to the river. You'll soon get views of the Bodhnath stupa rising up in the distance.

Guhyeshwari Temple
The Guhyeshwari Temple is dedicated to Shiva's shakti in her terrible manifestation as Kali. Entry is banned to non-Hindus, and the high wall around the temple prevents you from seeing anything except the four huge gilded snakes arching up to support the roof finial. Guhyeshwari was built by King Pratap Malla in 1653 and the temple stands in a paved courtyard surrounded by dharamsalas (pilgrims' resthouses). The temple's curious name comes from guhya (vagina) and ishwari (goddess) it's the temple of the goddess' vagina! Legend has it that when Shiva was insulted by his father-in-law, Parvati was so incensed that she burst into flames and it was this act of self-immolation that gave rise to the practice of sati (or suttee), where a widow is consigned to the same funeral pyre as her deceased husband. The grieving Shiva carried off the corpse of his shakti but as he wandered aimlessly, the body disintegrated and this is where her yoni (genitals) fell.

Festivals & Events
Pashupatinath is generally busiest (with genuine pilgrims, not tourists) from 6am to 10am and again from 6pm to 7.30pm. The best time to visit the temple is on Haribodhini Ekadashi 11 days after the full and new moon each month. On those days there will be many pilgrims and in the evening the ringing of bells will indicate that the aarti (light) ceremony is to take place. In February/March each year, the festival of Maha Shivaratri celebrates Shiva's birthday with a great fair at the temple. Pilgrims come from all over Nepal and India for this festival, and if you're in Kathmandu at the time you shouldn't miss it. The Bala Chaturdashi fair takes place in November/December, bringing with it lots of pilgrims, stalls and a fairlike atmosphere. Pilgrims burn oil lamps at night and bath in the holy Bagmati the following morning. Pilgrims then move through the complex, scattering sweets and seeds for their deceased relatives to enjoy in the afterlife.

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