I walk along a long stone corridor, somewhat lost through a seeming maze of directions. It's the late afternoon. Unsure of where I'm going then I simply walk around to explore the temple complex. There seems to be no right way or wrong way to travel. So I walk up the side and immediately come to a number of small bonfires alongside what I come to learn is the Bagmati River. It seems this is the burning ghat area of the complex. I see numerous piles of wood and straw with carnation garlands, many people standing around. Some people tending to the fires. I slowly make my way along the ghat corridor walk until the end. I had never been to a burning ghat before, and have never visited Varanasi, which is another one of the three major Shivaite complexes in the world. I had actually never visited a Shiva temple before in India either. In previous trips to India, then I would stay at the Vaisnava temples and do tours of those areas. So this was a big learning experience for me.
I come to find out that Pashupati is an aavatar of Shiva and "lord of the animals", and the national deity of Nepal. He is thought to have arrived in the form of a deer after being enchanted by the Kathmandu valley.
I was able to walk around and was approached by one man dressed in some sort of Sadhu garb, although somewhat unkept he seemed harmless enough. He starts rattling off various mystic transmission about the area in a perfect British accent, so I come to find out that he renounced his British upbringing apparently to get closer to his roots as a Sadhu where he smokes ganga all day. I eventually tell him I want to simply walk around the complex myself, which he then tells me is because I'm a white supremacist that I want to have this freedom. I think some people are simply wounded in life by inequality or racism, so even my simple act of wandering around this temple is somehow white supremacy to this guy. Needless to say, I found it quite irrational and also somewhat insulting. He did leave me alone and I was able to walk around the other side of the ghat. I eventually watch one of the deceased men being brought to the ghat. From across the river, I was able to photograph the entire burning ceremony and watch it. I could see several family members doing various rituals over the body. At times, some sort of grief would come into my heart remembering the experiences of loss and how painful that can be.
Afterwards, walk up the hill above the temple. There was a tea stand up there, where I was able to practice some of my Hindi with the chaiwallas. I had a few cups of tea and started chatting with a few of the local people. They had let me know that I should stay for the aarati at 630pm. I hang out and drink more and more tea. I enjoy the tea so much.
I go down to the river to watch the arrati ceremony, which is very similar to other Shivaite ceremonies that I've seen on the internet from places like Varanasi. Apparently, the temple complex here in Nepal is actually run by four the priests Brahmins from India, which are called Bhatta here in Nepal, and the organization that controls the temple is in India. They even send the priests and pujaris from institutions in Karnataka, and according to wikipedia these are "highly educated Vedic Dravida Brahmin scholars trained in the Shri Shankaracharya Dakshinamnaya Peeth Sringeri on Rig Vedic recitation, initiated in Pashupata Yoga, Shiva Āgama and learned recitation of Samaveda from Haridwar." They are the only ones allowed to touch the Shiva lingham inside. As a foreigner, I'm not even allowed to go into the temple at all since I'm not a Hindu by race or birth. There are also another group of 108 Bhandari's who are the temple assistants and helpers of the Bhattas, and apparently do not have to have Vedic knowledge and the requirements are mainly family lineage and caste or educational qualification.
I spent a few days watching the aarati ceremony and the cremations that were happening simultaneously. There is so much joy during the aarati with many people dancing. There seem to be many regulars who attend the ceremony to dance and light butter lamps. I came to the conclusion that the aarati would make me feel immensely comforted if my family member had passed away, and I could take them there to undergo cremation during the aarati. As I listened to the music and watched the scene around me then I'm reminded of when my brother passed away. The day I got the news that my brother had committed suicide then it was a large holiday, Radhastami, which is the appearance day of Srimati Radharani. I remember going to the temple in the evening for aarati and chanting the bhajans, although it felt so surreal. I remember one of my friends there told me that it looked like I had seen a ghost. Although, the aarati was uplifting and the spiritual practice I had at the time really did become more significant to me as I meditated and chanted during that time. That was 15 years ago now, so it is a distant memory.
Even so, while I was watching the aarati lamps circle around Pashupatinath temple, and the incence and water offerings being made, I thought that there really isn't a large complex with people chanting and dancing while any sort of funeral happens where I live and so for me it was sort of a revolutionary concept. It seems that some certain individuals are starting to develop more complexes for people to simply go in their last stages of life to die. Places that are not hospitals but more like public places for the elderly to pass away. In the US it seems this sort of death doula culture does exist with various individuals being somewhat like caretakers of the dying, to anoint them and say final prayers. Although this is not widespread or common practice, perhaps one day it will be.