Day 63 – Location: Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu; Nepal
I was up early again to visit the temple of Pashupatinath. The guide book recommended arriving early to see more of the locals before the tourist hordes arrive, and also I knew the light would be better for pictures. I grabbed a quick breakfast and took a taxi there, about 20 minutes drive on the outskirts of the city.
I was dropped by one of the ticket booths and walked along a path past opening souvenir shops to the temple complex. The temple sits along the river, which is sacred to Hindus. It is a place where the dead are brought and cremated in ceremony. By the river big steps on either side went down to the water. At regular intervals I passed holy men who had open books in front of them and tikka trays. Some were reading, some praying. I guess they give blessings to people that need it. One of them agreed to let me take his photo.
Up ahead was the main complex. A stone bridge crossed the river here, across the river on the left there were already stacks of wood at regular intervals burning ready for cremations. The place was already buzzing with locals. On the other side of the river were big temple buildings, and on my side there were many smaller shrines lined along the river, and along a stone staircase leading up the hill to my right.
I came across some of the decorated “holy men” who looked very impressive. They asked for a photo and I offered 10 rupees (a standard tip for this). They said 100 rupees! I laughed at them and walked off. I bet loads of people pay it though. If the light had been good for portraits I would have been tempted. I crossed the bridge to get closer to the cremation pyres. One body was already laid out, covered in a shroud and with flowers laid across it. The family were around and a man was stacking wood around the body ready for the cremation. It was a bit strange to see a body out in the open like this. There was a raised section overlooking the pyres for observation, I took a few photos but not many as I thought it’s not very respectful to be photographing a funeral.
I crossed back over the bridge and walked up the hill following the big stone staircase. The early morning light was awesome streaming through the trees on either side. I walked past stone shrines and lots of monkeys. Some beggars were sat along the side of the steps. Then the steps were flanked by bigger stone steps reminiscent of a pyramid on each side, where the monkeys climbed around.
At the top was a big collection of shrines and buildings. It was really nice. Some guys were doing fitness around the shrines and there were even bars cemented to the ground for this purpose. A really nice place to do your morning workout! Past the shrines was a larger gated temple. It was unremarkable in the grounds and I couldn’t go inside the temple itself as it was for Hindus only. There were loads of police hanging out here for some reason.
I walked past some locals having a badminton competition and past the shrines in the other direction, finding a tower in a courtyard and more holy men, “real” ones this time, from the looks of it.
I spotted a vast horde of monkeys in a clearing nearby and wandered over to have a look. There were hundreds here chilling out in the sun, most of them grooming each other. It was fun to just watch them grooming, playing, fighting and chasing each other. They clambered around trees and up the sides of buildings. They weren’t bothered by my presence unless I came too close, when they’d usually run off.
I walked back down to the river where another body had been brought out on the other side to me. It looked like an old woman, her face was visible. They’d lowered her on the big steps leading to the river on a stretcher, so she was lying sloping down with her feet near the water. Family members came down alongside and helped to wash her using the river water.
On my side other locals and a few tourists who had arrived were watching in silence. Above the steps was a temple building with a viewing platform where lots of people were watching too, whether relatives, locals or tourists I don’t know. The river itself is really nasty – full of debris and a horrible colour. After shrouding the body, the clothes get thrown into the river to float downstream, so as you can imagine you can see all sorts of bits and bobs in there.
To my side there were rows of locals listening to a sermon of some kind by an animated man. They were singing, praying and taking offerings from him. The singing was nice and fit the atmosphere of the place as we watched the ceremony.
After being shrouded the dead woman’s stretcher was lifted up and away by the men of the family, presumably to be cremated further along the river. Tearful family members followed them. Next up an old dead man was brought down to the river for the same treatment. Whilst I was watching this, a cheeky male monkey was getting chased off by some crazy old local men below on the steps. It stole a banana from them and they chased it off with sticks. It wasn’t really scared and stayed just out of reach. It came alongside me and sat down about a meter away. One of the old guys motioned me to scare it and I laughed. I looked over at it and took a photo. It grimaced at me and looked mad. When I turned to look at it again, it suddenly leapt at me! I was sitting down and it scratched at my arm before jumping back. I chased it off and checked out my arm. It was covered in banana spit from where it had been eating the banana, but thankfully the skin hadn’t been broken, just a slight marking and maybe one layer of skin disturbed, no blood. I washed it thoroughly with water from my bottle and then with my Dettol hand cleaner. I wondered if you needed a blood wound for rabies to be transmitted, I knew you had to get treatment within 24 hours if you had a risk of infection. I decided to carry on as normal and look it up later, if need be I could get vaccinated later in the day, and there was no wound to speak of.
I watched the rest of the washing ceremony for the dead man. The women who came down to wash him were distraught and wailing. The wife was hysterical and had to be held by her family members. It was quite harrowing and also humbling. It’s a strange experience to witness a funeral for someone you don’t know firsthand, especially being able to see the deceased in full view in front of you.
After this I went walking around the temple buildings. Only Hindus can go in the main temples, so I wandered around outside, coming across a long stream of women dressed in red, carrying urns and fronted by a brass band. They went in a procession around the surrounding road and I followed them to take photos.
After that I went back into the temple ground and climbed the steps up the hill to the shrines area I’d seen before, passing people bringing goats up for sacrifice, and a very unwilling young buffalo.
I stopped at the top for a coffee where I asked a guy who looked like a guide about the urn procession. He said it happens daily and the urns are full of holy water from the river. I thanked him and got chatting to him and the western girl he was with, a German called Sophie. The guy turned out not to be her guide but a teacher at a school she would be volunteering at soon. We chatted for a while and he said I was welcome to stay in his village any time. The generosity of the Nepali people astounds me sometimes, they’re quite happy to invite complete strangers into their homes. Me and Sophie swapped details to meet up later. I set off down the other side of the hill, taking some stone steps out of the temple area towards Bodnath, which was only half an hour’s walk according to the guide book.
The path took me past a few more temples and out by the river, where I crossed a footbridge and walked through the suburbs for a while following the book’s directions. After twenty minutes I could see Bodnath stupa in the distance – it’s the biggest stupa in Nepal and an important site for the Tibetan Buddhists. I reached the busy main road and joined hordes of tourists to get inside the gate.
The stupa really was big. It was white with a golden pyramid atop with the Buddah eyes painted on each side. The base was surrounded by prayer wheels. Aside from lots of tourists, there were locals here and plenty of Tibetan people, recognizable with their distinctive clothes. Most seemed old. They were doing the rounds of the prayer wheels. Lining the other side of the circular path around the stupa were shops, restaurants and other temple buildings. In one you could hear and see Tibetan monks in an upper window playing music with drums and horns.
The stupa was impressive with coloured flags streaming off its spire to the base. Half way around was an entrance where you could climb higher and circumnavigate the stupa from there, clockwise of course, as is the proper way. A little building to the size held two huge prayer wheels which rotated at an alarming rate; there was barely room to squeeze past them.
I walked slowly around the stupa taking loads of photos. On one side there were mats for Buddhist initiates, where two western women were praying, getting up and lying down again doing prayers, with books – presumably some kind of Buddhist prayer book.
After going around I headed outside, there’s not much else to see. I shared a taxi back to Thamel with some backpackers who had just come from trekking and had stayed the night at Bodnath to relax. They said it’s really nice in the evening and I vowed to return one day to see for myself.
Back at the hotel I ran into one of the new girls in the dorm, a Belgian French girl called Camille who’d just arrived. She was really friendly and we chatted for a while, deciding to meet up later. I went online to research the passport situation and also rabies. To my dismay I saw that it’s possible to contract it through saliva contact on skin alone, although unlikely. I called one of the local travel clinics for advice. The doctor told me the official line in this situation is to get the rabies vaccination. Even if it’s unlikely in my situation, there is a small chance of contracting it if the monkey had rabies. It certainly was aggressive and had strange behavior. I decided to go in for a consultation, after phoning my travel insurance company, who told me the maximum I’d pay was 150 pounds and they’d pay any excess, though it was unlikely to be more than that. It was almost 5pm and they were about to close but said they’d stay open for me to come in.
It was about a twenty minute walk to the clinic and I greeted the manager and doctor there. The doctor took a look and said although it was unlikely I’d be infected it probably wasn’t worth taking a chance on. The problem with rabies is that you don’t show symptoms for at least 3 weeks, sometimes even 6 months – but once you show symptoms it’s too late, it’s a fatal disease with a slow and painful death. Only a few people in the world have been cured after showing symptoms. You just can’t mess with it. I asked about the costs. Because I hadn’t taken a rabies vaccination before, I’d need the super-expensive drug immuglobin, which slows the disease long enough for the standard vaccination to take effect, which is a few days. You have to receive the vaccination within 24 hours of being bitten to be 100% safe. So, how much would it cost? I was told you need a number of vials depending on your weight. Each vial costs over 100$. Oh shit. They weighed me and I was told I’d need 10 vials, plus the standard rabies vaccination over 4 sessions, plus the consultation fee, a cost of over $1600 dollars! Jesus Christ.
I got on the phone to the insurance company using the clinic’s phone. There was no way I could afford that, but it was going to be necessary to be safe. Then began a very slow and painful process via their third party company in Asia. Forms had to be filled out, medical reports faxed and phone calls made back and forth. Understandably the manager didn’t want to go ahead with the injections until he was sure they’d get paid. The last time they dealt with a case like this they had a nightmare getting the insurance company to pay so he was wary. He explained they wanted to help me but if the insurance company would take days to process the claim he could take my passport as a deposit. That would have been great if my passport hadn’t been stolen! So for the next three hours we all waited around for the clearance process to go through, the manager, the doctor and the nurse all staying late to help me, which I thanked them dearly for. Whilst we waited I asked if they wanted to try and remove a tick which had embedded itself in my armpit today (maybe another attack from the monkey, who knows!), which me and Camille had tried to encourage out with cream earlier to no avail. The doc successfully pulled the little blighter out, teeth intact, though it did hold on for dear life stretching my skin to the max. We nuked it with fire to be sure.
Amazingly we eventually got everything cleared via the insurance company. I paid my 150 quid and we started the injections, getting a Tetanus jab and then the first rabies vaccination. Then was the immuglobin, where I had to get 3 injections, two at the wound site. It was just pumped under the skin where it made a big nasty looking set of blobs, and the nurse rotated the needle in a circle under the surface of my skin to get full coverage. It was quite painful but not as bad as they were making out it would be. Maybe I’ve become pain resistant with all my recent injuries? As there was nowhere left to put the immuglobin in my arm, the last shot was in my bum. I told the nurse it was her reward for staying late.
With the drama finally over, I was booked in for another 3 injections over the coming weeks for the rabies boosters. I thanked all the staff for their help and we finally got to go home. I went to meet Sophie, the girl I’d met at the temple for a drink. We went to a local place and I had some dinner there, I was starving. We stayed out quite late and I bid her goodnight- she had to get up early to go to her new home village and do a trek with her host before her volunteer work started. On the streets we saw the aftermath of some bad accident. One of the beggar guys who has no feet and walks around on his knees was lying down, unconscious or dead, surrounded by people and police. There was blood on him. Sophie’s a nurse and was about to help when she saw he was about to be loaded into a taxi. They piled him in and it raced off. Where he had been lying there was a load of blood. Maybe he’d been hit by a vehicle; it seems likely in these narrow, chaotic streets. Another reminder of the fragility of mortality on a pretty strange day. I arrived in the dorm, everyone else was asleep. The place was completely full, and I went straight to sleep.