Pashupatinath Temple is one of the 7 UNESCO sites of Kathmandu Valley set along the banks of the sacred Bagmati River. Visiting at Pashupatinath at dusk is a whole different experience than going in the day as you can watch the Aarati ceremonial rituals of death and rebirth.
What is an Aarti Ceremony?
Aarti is the ritual conducted in front of the deity by moving lamps in a circular fashion and dedicating their act to the Divine. The same rituals are performed in Varanasi but has only become a regular tradition at Pashupati since 2006 and starts at 7pm each evening. The followers perform a dance called the Tandav to to pay respect to Lord Shiva. The atmosphere is electric and you can feel the euphoric energy from the dancers.
Funeral pyres at Pashupatinath
In sharp contrast to the Eastern ghats of the Pashupatinath where life is celebrated and devotees will take a ritual bath in the holy river, on the Western plateaus families are cremating relatives. Pashupatinath really is a place where you are unequivocally faced with life and death.
Cremations take place a day after death has occurred and the bodies are brought to Pashupatinath for the cremation by the Bagmati River, it is believed that a Hindu cremated here would be reborn as a Human in his next birth.
There were three funerals of ordinary Nepalis taking place daily on the ghats to the south of the temple. One was just being prepared with wood being placed on the plateau, close relatives carry a stretcher with a body on, the body is covered with white shrouds. The body is carried around the wood pile three times clockwise and then the oldest son walks around the body with a lit piece of wood and kindles the wood near the mouth of the deceased which is where is it believed by Hindus that the spirit leaves the body from. Once the pile bursts into flames, the body is covered with wet straw soaked from the holy river creating white smoke. The priests will perform prayers and chants as the families watch on. Wet straw is added to the fire and it can take 3-4 hours to burn.
Meeting the famous Sadhu
My guide took me into the Sadhu (holy men) living quarters. There was a courtyard of Sadhus but we had the main man to see, we knocked on his door and he welcomed us in. He has become a Sadhu at the age of 5 and has had no sex or marriage as he devoted himself to his God.
His Rasta dreads on his head and beard were now at whopping 2m long and were pretty heavy when he unknotted from the top of his head and rested around my shoulders. The Sadhu is happy to pose for photos but he will expect you to cross his palm with rupees, Sadhus officially depend on gifts.
Fact File: Pashupinath at dusk
Getting to Pashupinath
The buses are super dirty and I had a bandaged foot following my failed Everest Base Camp trek so it was taxi for me from Thamel. It will cost around 500 NPR one way but I got the taxi to wait for me as the drivers at Pashupatinath can take advantage and charge you 3 times as much to return. My taxi waited 1.5 hours and I gave him 1300 NPR.
Hiring a local guide
On entering the Pashupatinath site, I was stopped by a local guy who claimed to be a guide and he was, he had a license to prove it. Expect to pay between 700-1000 NPR for him to show me round and give me the lowdown of the rituals and traditions of Pashupatinath, took me up to the Pandra Shivalaya on the terraces, in to see the famous Sadhu and guided me to some great photo spots. Well worth it! However, there are scammers out there so watch out!
Book a guided tour
There is normally a 1000 NPR admission fee but my said there was nobody on the gate. Non-hindus are not allowed to enter the temple so you just get to wander round the outside of the temple, the funeral ghats and along the river bank.
The site is open every day from 4am to 9pm but it is closed between noon and 5pm. Give yourself around 90-120minutes to explore the site properly.
Photography is allowed at the Pashupatinath Temple but do remember, it is a place of worship and where families go to cremate their loved ones, show them respect at this time.
Pashupatinath attracts as a holy place a lot of sadhus. These men with their colourful painted faces and their long Rasta hair know that they are very photogenic, this seems to be big business for them too. You will find this mainly in the daytime though.