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Christian countries have Christmas. Nepal has the Dashain Festival.
I’ll be the first to admit that I have a great handle on Christianity, a decent understanding of Judaism, and basically no knowledge of Buddhism or Hinduism. But Nepal is 82% Hindu and home to thousands of Hindu temples, so I felt the need to try and understand the religion and it’s impact on local life while visiting the top three temples in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Luckily our visit coincided with the largest Hindu holiday in Nepal, so I guess you could say my introduction to Hinduism was a baptism by fire. And kites. And coconut sacrifices. But we’ll get to that later…
Dashain is the biggest and most anticipated holiday in Nepal. Nepalese Hindus celebrate Dashain for 15 days between September or October every year with games, ceremonies, and festivals to celebrate and appease Hindus gods. During this time government offices shut down, school is out of session, and Nepalis from around the world gather at some of Nepal’s most influential Hindu temples to worship with family.
We planned a trip to Nepal specifically during the Dashain festival to witness country-wide celebrations and ceremonies in eye-opening and (sometimes) stomach-churning ways at various Kathmandu temples.
But hey, that’s travel.
Cremations at Pashupatinath Temple
Stop #1 was to the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathamandu.
The Pashupatinath temple is the most sacred and important Hindu temple in Kathmandu. Thousands of Hindus visit the temple on a daily basis to leave offerings and request blessings from the temple’s resident sadhus (Holy Men). Visitation is even more popular during Dashain, as the Pashupatinath Temple is seen as the most holy site to participate in ceremonial blessings and activities.
As visitors we were able to wander the grounds of the outer complex, but the inner temple complex remained sacred for practicing Hindus. We were quickly bored with pressing our noses through a chain link fence trying to catch a glimpse of practitioners in the inner complex below, but soon found that the real attraction takes place in a different portion of the temple.
The Pashupatinath Temple was built along the banks of the Bagmati River, which eventually flows into the Holy Ganges River in India. The temple’s placement alongside a Ganges water source led to it’s prominence in ceremonial cremations.
One tenet of Hinduism is a belief in reincarnation. After death your spirit will be reincarnated into any number of lifeforms from bug to human. This reincarnated form will be a reward or punishment in your next life for actions in your current life. For this reason Hindus strive to be honest and helpful, which helps to ensure reincarnation in higher forms.
Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges River can cleanse your sins, so the newly deceased are brought to the Pashupatinath Temple for a final cleansing in the Bagmati River. Cleansing a body as close to death as possible helps that spirit’s odds of being reincarnated into a clean life form.
Thousands of visitors come to the Pashupatinath Temple to view open cremation rituals on stone steps across from the temple’s main cremation bank. Though not a specific aspect of celebrating Dashain, bodies from across Kathmandu (and other parts of Nepal, as long as the family can afford the trip) are brought to the temple for cremation at all hours of the day during the 15-day festival. Those mourning a death in the family refrain from directly celebrating Dashain, as it would be seen as disrespectful to the deceased.
We sat across from the cremation pyre and watched as two different bodies were brought out from an old-fashioned ambulance.
Family members carry the bodies on wooden stretchers, already stripped of their Earthly clothes and covered in ceremonial white or red (which represents death) fabric. The body is respectfully carried down steps to the Bagmati River and gently cleansed by family on it’s feet and head. The body is brought back to the landing of the temple where it can be mourned after and prayed over. The body is carefully walked around a freshly set funeral pyre three times, then prayed over by it’s closest male family member. It is then covered with flammable wrappings and a candle is placed in the body’s mouth, as the mouth is considered the holiest part of the body. It is, after all, where you speak good or ill in between your first and last breaths.
It can take around an hour from arrival for a body to be cleansed and prepared for public cremation, during which time visitors, family members, and tourists watch from across the river.
Initially, I was shocked to see a public cremation. I felt like an intruder at a private function. I was sad for the deceased’s family members who are expected to let go of their loved one so quickly. I was ashamed at those around me taking pictures and exploiting this family’s grief. Then I realized something important: this isn’t my religion. It’s not up to me to judge, it’s up to me to accept.
I’d recently attended my grandfather’s funeral services in the United States. He was 92 and sick for weeks leading up to his death. My extended family members were deeply depressed at his passing but none were surprised. Still, I sobbed for hours after seeing his body made up for the viewing and funeral services. He didn’t look like himself, and it’s hard to reconcile that the body of the person you love is within reach but not actually available. We spent days thinking about him, talking about him, looking through pictures, attending a viewing, holding a funeral, visiting a gravesite.
Was my mourning process more important than that of someone who is immediately cremated? More valuable? Was my closure faster? More satisfying? Probably not.
In fact, my feelings of voyeurism quickly faded as I began to applaud the families across the river from me. I couldn’t help but be jealous of the family’s active involvement in every step of the cleansing and cremation process, and think that such prominent behavior may even help the grieved accept death.
Kite Fighting at Swayambhunath Temple
The Buddhist Swayambhunath Temple is commonly known as the Monkey Temple for one obvious reason: It’s covered in monkeys.
The first thing we saw when approaching the hilltop temple was a family of adult and baby monkeys scattering around our feet. It was also the second and third and fourth things we saw. We hate monkeys. Contrary to public opinion, wild monkey are mean, thieving biters who do not want to be petted. We’ve learned that the hard way.
The fifth thing we saw was a circular fountain with a golden statue of Buddha at the center. An open pot sits at Buddha’s feet, and legend has it that your wish will be granted if you can land a coin into the pot. A coin dealer is available on-site to exchange rupee bills for coins, but it’s harder to ace than you’d think. Try as we might we weren’t able to sink any of our 30 coins. Too bad, since one of my wishes was to keep those darn monkeys away from me.
A level of stairs took us away from the lower temple and further uphill toward the giant white stupa. Two blue eyes atop the stupa peek from behind a red curtain as if keeping watch on the busy city below. Buddha is always watching, after all. I found the stare peaceful and comforting. I like feeling protected.
Our reason for visiting Swayambhunath temple was not the cluster of mangy monkey who have claimed it as their own nor the famous stupa, but to watch kite fighting.
Yes, kite fighting.
There is a portion of patio on the upper level of the temple with a wide balcony that overlooks Kathmandu. It’s a juxtaposing position to be in: a view of the busy, crowded, polluted city in one direction and a gorgeous, white, glinting all-seeing, blue-eyed stupa in the other direction. In this place it’s easy to feel caught between two worlds: the mortal, earthy, natural existence we find ourselves bound and the peaceful, promising haven we seek.
It is here, in limbo, that Nepalis come to fight kites.
Kites made out of colorful tissue paper between thin pieces of wood can be bought for pennies all over town during Dashain. Locals weave their own string through the kite and fly them against another. The kite string is covered with manja, a powder mixture of compressed glass and gum. This gives the string strength but also makes it sharp.
Swayambhunath temple is the ideal spot for kite fighting as the hilltop balcony looks directly across a giant, clear, October sky. Two fighters will ready their kites on the balcony, some adorned with prayers or signatures from loved ones. Each kite is thrown into the wind and, after being let out for miles, their masters artfully maneuver the kites towards one another.
The point of kite fighting during Dashain is for one kite’s string to cut the other. The victory is symbolic of the ancient banishment of the evil Lankan demon by Lord Vishnu’s avatar, Lord Ram. Historically, the kites were released to spread the message of peace and celebration to Nepalis far and wide, but now kite fighting has become a fun Dashain tradition among Nepali youth.
We watched man after man challenge the resident kite victor on the balcony of the Swayambhunath Temple. All cheering and giddy, there seemed to be no ill will among the competitors. They’re here to celebrate. To literally and figuratively let loose. I found it mesmerizing.
You can’t help but be happy after walking through a Kathmandu street under the colorful confetti of kites flying overhead, manned by young adults just happy to have a few days off of work.
Consider the message of celebration spread.
Animal Sacrifices at Dakshinkali Temple
I wasn’t emotionally prepared to visit the Dakshinkali temple for the Dashian festival.
I’d only gotten 4 hours of sleep the night before and had to rush through breakfast to meet our group at 8:00 a.m. I’m not a pleasant person to be around when I’m tired or hungry, which means I’m in the exact wrong frame of mind to be observing some of the most peaceful people on Earth celebrate their religious holiday.
Dakshinkali is the least visited of my list of top three Kathamandu, Nepal, temples because it’s deceptively hard to get to. It took over an hour for our van to travel the 22 km to Dakshinkali Temple thanks to the part dirt, part rock, pothole-laden hilly roads of Kathmandu. More than one child in our van fell to the side as we caught air along the ride, which didn’t help my mood.
We finally arrived at a small dirt parking lot and our guide, Jaya, explained we’d walk from there to the temple.
We’d come to Dakshinkali Temple to observe the animal sacrifices by Hindus in observance of the Dashain holiday. This is A largely vegetarian group, Hindus don’t sacrifice animals out of disrespect. It’s actually quite the opposite. Hindus hold a belief in reincarnation dear, which means there is a sanctity to animal life. On this most holy of holidays certain animals are sacrificed in order to purge the believer of their sins.
I was still feeling annoyed as we entered the narrow, winding path leading from the parking lot to the temple. The path was marked by vendors on each side. Selling the small toys and fruit we typically see, the stands were also full of marigold necklaces, bindi dye powders, red and gold scarves, and goats, roosters, and coconuts.
Jaya explained that the marigold necklaces are called mala and the fabric squares are called khata. They are deep yellow and red, which symbolize sunrise and sunset (or birth and death) in the Hindu faith. Each are worn around the neck as a blessing for happiness.
Bad mood or not I’m still human and was fascinated with the bold, thick colors emanating from the booths full of flowers and fabrics. Ben saw me eyeing the malas and suggested we get some. I’m generally against participating in ceremonies or cultures I’m not a member of for fear of disrespecting believers, but I found myself desperately wanting to wear this pretty necklace.
We asked Jaya if it would be considered disrespectful to wear malas and he assured us that, as opposed to symbols in other faiths or cultures, the Hindus believe these items bring happiness and that it would bring us happiness to wear as well as make the locals happy to see us in them. He made a great point: It could definitely help me feel like less of an intruder to make an effort to connect with these believers vs observing them from a distance.
To be honest, I immediately felt better once that orange mala was bestowed upon me.
“I’m ready to be friends again.” I apologetically said to Ben.
Don’t all people believe in the fundamental value of happiness?
The goats and roosters are purchased by Hindus as part of the sacrificial ritual. The animals are carefully chosen and lovingly brought to the temple for sacrifice by a priest. The priest will bless the family, then return the animal to them for cleaning and butchering so as not to waste the physical meat. Consuming the body of the sacrificed animal is another way Hindus can show respect for the animal and appreciation for it’s sacrifice for them.
Those not able to purchase the animals or who choose not to sacrifice living things buy coconuts to bring to the temple. In their case, a priest will take the coconut, smash it while saying a prayer, and sprinkle it’s milk on the owners. He then returns the coconut as the family bows in thanks.
We approached a descending staircase and a long, long, long, long line of Nepalis at the end of the line of street vendors. They were dressed in gorgeous red saris and kurta salwar suits, holding roosters by the feet, goats by a rope, or baskets of coconuts. I normally despise roosters for their constant chatter, but the goats and roosters in line are all quiet.
Do they know what’s about to happen? Are they the actual reincarnations of past Hindus who are willingly participating in this ritual?
Our group stood at the staircase entrance waiting for Jaya, none sure of what to do or where to go but all hoping to avoid the line. Jaya soon walked back and calmed our fears saying, “It’s OK you can walk down now. We have privilege.”
White privilege? I couldn’t help thinking.
The difference between our group and the Nepali Hindus was more than white privilege. We were not offering a sacrifice, so we could bypass the line leading to the sacrificial courtyard. We followed the others down a few stairs and eventually splintered from the main line across a bridge leading to the back of the temple as the others slowly moved with their stalwart offerings toward the sacrifice center.
Once inside the temple complex we saw that it, like other Hindu temples in Kathmandu, was mostly outdoors. Bridges connect two sides of the temple complex over a small river, and holy men are planted on wide sidewalks offering blessings in the form of bindis (colorful painted dots on the forhead), marigold petals (scattered on the crown of your head), and red and yellow string bracelets (wrapped around your wrist multiple times).
The entire sight was pretty overwhelming.
Nepalis here to sacrifice for Dashain were queued up nicely on one side of the complex waiting their turn to enter the temple, but the side we were on was pure chaos. Hindus all around us were disposing of or cleaning their sacrificed animals, bent to receive blessings from the holy men, and taking selfies.
East meets West in all sorts of unusual but pragmatic ways.
We eventually made our way around a corner. This turned out to be both fortuitous and unfortunate placement. On the one hand we were able to see the outdoor sacrificial courtyard on our left, where all visitors entered. They would offer prayers, ring ceremonial bells, then split into those with coconuts and those with animals.
The vegetarian Hindus would leave the complex and cross to a stand to present their coconuts to a Priest. The priest would pick a coconut from the crowd of people, say a few words, then smash it against a rock. He would sprinkle some of the liquid at the offerer then hand the coconut back in exchange for some small bills. The process was efficient and unemotional, taking mere seconds before the next eager coconut was plucked from the waiting crowd.
Those with animals to sacrifice presented their offerings to a different priest who ceremonially killed the animal along the neck. Unfortunately our six year old son joined his Dad and a few other men from our group inside the sacrificial complex to view a live sacrifice, and promptly came out a self-proclaimed vegetarian.
We saw the same lifeless goat as it exited the complex toward the butcher station with it’s owner, and I couldn’t help but feel vegetarian for a while, too.
After cleaning Whit’s feet from the spilt blood he’d had to walk through we offered a small bill to one of the holy men on the sidewalk for a blessing for him. The man sat on the sidewalk wearing thick red and yellow clothing surrounded by shallow woven plates of his blessing materials. He smiled calmly and happily at my tender hearted child, wrapped a red and yellow string around his his wrist three times, then sprinkled marigold petals over his head. The fickle petals fled as soon as Whit walked away, but his string bracelet remained for the next two weeks. Jaya explained that one of the bracelet blessings is for strength, which we reminded Whit of every time he had to do something hard.
It was nice for him to have that physical reminder.
Related: The easiest hike in Nepal
An outsider’s understanding of Dashain
To be honest, I’m still not sure that I understand the Nepal holiday of Dashain.
What I do understand is that I was born into a very different culture very far away, and my beliefs have no right to be imposed on those I observed. We all have the right to worship in whichever ways please our souls.
That being said, I didn’t necessarily enjoy it. While I respect the cremation ceremonies we witnessed I have no plans on being immediately cremated when I die. Watching their grieving process felt intrusive to me, and made me realize I may need to re-examine the distance I’ve been taught to put between myself and the dying process.
Similarly, being around the animal sacrifices was confusing for me. I found their practice fascinating from a sociological perspective, but was confused and disgusted by the seemingly emotionless way I saw animals killed. It’s hard to know if their actions were heartfelt or out of social pressure and karmatic fear. Then again, there are things I do out of religious social pressure so I really can’t judge.
I loved touring the gorgeous Kathamandu temples and especially loved the kinship of being around so many people visiting them for the sake of bettering their souls. There’s something truly beautiful about people coming together for a greater good.
I also loved the inclusiveness of the Hindu population. We were so warmly welcomed and patiently taught everywhere we went. I was afraid of looking like a naive outsider, but we were embraced. Come one, come all!
This is just one example of why we have to travel. To open ourselves up, to learn new things, to respect other people, and to root what we love.