Tomorrow – Experiencing Hindu Death Rituals
You were mumbling when I sidled up next to you to photograph the fires. Dressed in black trousers and a gray jacket the color of the brewing storm clouds, you pressed your palms together in prayer. Your long fingers touched the hairs on your chin.
We stood above the Bagmati River facing Pashupatinath, a pagoda-like temple and complex dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is the most sacred site for Hindus in Nepal and one of seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kathmandu Valley. It’s also the place where devout Hindus come to burn their dead.
On the ghats, the wide steps stretched along the river banks, bodies—about a dozen, each shrouded in white cloth and draped in marigolds—were dipped three times into the holy water, then cremated, releasing the individual’s spiritual essence from its physical form and allowing it to be reborn.
You seemed at ease, like you’d seen this many times in your 50-something years. But I, in my sneakers, puffy down jacket, and camera slung around my neck, was a definite interloper. The scene was surreal to me. I watched silhouetted monkeys jump between ornate rooftops as white flames were strung out along the river like eerie streetlamps. Men with long sticks stoked these fires, imploring them to burn hotter. Eventually ashes and embers were swept into the river, fizzling and smoking in their final resting place.
Though death billowed around us, I could see you were not sad. By all appearances, no one was. Your face was relaxed, supple. No twisted signs of pain or contorted sorrow cajoling for sympathy.
Music came from somewhere on the steps above ours, behind rows of clapping revelers. Were there musicians? Was it a portable CD player? I couldn’t tell and it didn’t seem to matter. Children clung to the colorful balloon pants of their mothers’ swaying saris while two dancers swung silver bowls of fire, drawing ethereal circles and swirls in the night air. Every now and then you shouted in unison with the rest of the crowd. A word? A cheer? Your part in a communal song? I don’t know. When the music stopped, your hands came apart. I could feel your eyes on me.
“So, what you think?” you asked me.
“That’s a hard question. I don’t know how to answer that right now,” I said.
Your narrowed eyes told me you were trying to process my fast speech, my American accent. This time I spoke slowly.
“I have never seen anything like this.”
That too was no lie. Maybe because I don’t believe in an afterlife, I couldn’t make sense of celebrating the dead in order to shepherd them into a new life in a place I can't see, or touch, or even imagine. Where I come from, death is not a celebration. Funerals are private affairs. Crying and sadness are as much of a requirement as wearing black and whispering. It is an end, not a beginning.
“Where you from?” you asked.
“California. United States,” I replied.
I think you wanted to ask more questions, and I wanted to answer. Instead, a silence landed between us like a crow, and we turned back toward the fires. You put your hands together again, and the rumble of your voice started anew. I interrupted you.
“Are you singing or praying?”
“Yes, pray,” you said.
“What do you pray for?” I asked.
Was the question too personal?
Then you said it: a single word.
“Tomorrow” is what I heard—but I’m still not sure it’s what you said.
The next day I asked a friend who spoke some Nepali if there was a word in your language that sounded like “tomorrow.” Not that he knew of, he said. We ruminated on this for a while: Did you really say tomorrow? Did you know the English word? If so, perhaps you were referring to reincarnation? Rebirth? A future for the dead you were honoring? I’ll never know the answer because I didn’t talk to you again.
I’m sorry. I should have smiled back and asked what you meant, bade you to repeat yourself. Instead I sank deep into the word I believed I’d heard and let it shroud my body.
I thought about you and the others around me, standing there as supplicants for tomorrow, while I stood there faithless in that which I could not see. A person who does not believe in God, yet feels connected to something bigger than myself. A person whose spiritual knowledge is as shallow as the rain puddles that had formed at our feet.
I was overcome by the word, its subsequent melancholy. Or was it emptiness? Maybe it was guilt or shame. No, it was clarity: unlike you, I was someone who took tomorrow for granted.
The word might not have been what you said or meant to say, but it shifted something in me.
Though I looked and felt like an intruder in your sanctum, you made room for my presence, just as death always does, no matter where we come from or whether we believe in an afterlife. And because of you, I closed my eyes, clasped my hands together, and thanked whomever was listening for the gift of tomorrow that turned into today.
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Kimberley Lovato is a freelance travel writer and author whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Family Circle, Virtuoso Life, Southwest: The Magazine, Private Clubs, and in many more print and online publications. Her essays have appeared in numerous anthologies including The Best Women’s Travel Writing, and she is the author of four travel-themed books including Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves, which was the 2012 Gold Medal Winner of SATW’s Lowell Thomas Award. Read more about her at www.kimberleylovato.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @kimberleylovato.
This story first appeared in Off Assignment.
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