On The Banks of the Baghmati


More than 8,000 miles away from home, a woman gains a new perspective
on the nature of living, dying and her own diagnosis of cancer.

By Cynthia Ryan

Standing on the banks of the Baghmati River at Pashupatinath Temple, the oldest Shiva shrine in Nepal and one of the region’s most holy sites, I can’t quite decide where to direct my attention.  An irresistible feature of Kathmandu—both the city and the surrounding valley—is the constant deluge of sensations, from the incessant blaring of horns by taxi and rickshaw drivers to the colorful wares sold by street venders. Amid the chaos at Pashupatinath, where pilgrims come to give puja, celebrate life and bid farewell to the dead, I feel uncharacteristically at home.

I had embarked on Pashupatinath out of cultural curiosity about Hindu rites of passage, but I left with a clearer sense of my own place in the world. More than 8000 miles away from Birmingham, my cancer journey changed course.

Snapshots of Nepalese Life

The grounds at Pashupatinath were crowded as usual that Wednesday morning in July when our group climbed out of the van designated “for tourists only.” Accompanied by my colleague from art history, Cathleen Cummings, students participating in the UAB in Nepal study away program, and our local guide Sakar, I encountered people caught up in the busyness of Nepalese life—happening across the occasional goat, dog, monkey and cow along the way.

We stopped to pay the entrance fee for foreigners, collect our brochures and offer a biscuit to a lonely cow grazing at the front gates before finding ourselves facing a group of holy women gathered beneath a covered pavilion.

Making our way to the main shrine, we paused to converse with a family celebrating a head-shaving ceremony, a common rite of passage for young children in this part of the world. As the child’s hair fell to the ground in clumps, I thought back to my daughters’ climactic first trips to the hair salon where they sacrificed just an inch or two as opposed to a full head of hair.

A few short steps brought us to the central shrine. Only Sakar was allowed to enter here since the rest of us weren’t Hindus. From outside the gate, we gazed upon the immense, gold-gilded bull Nandi seated before the linga, a phallic symbol representing Shiva. I had seen Nandi in a similar pose in many temples throughout Nepal and India, but never one quite this magnificent.

Finally, we reached the Baghmati River, stopping in a hospice at the water’s edge that serves the indigent with no place else to go. While some come to this facility to receive care and then return home, more come to die. I stood briefly by the bedside of a 78-year-old man diagnosed with terminal cancer who was no longer responding to the voices of his children. A host of family members encircled him, one of his sons gently grasping his hand and quietly chanting a mantra to guide his departing soul.

After offering a quiet prayer of my own and attempting to process the magnitude of what was happening in this room, I descended the hospice steps to discover a flurry of activity and emotion along the ancient banks of the Baghmati.

Nourishment

“A funeral is starting,” Peter, one of the students from our group, whispered as I landed on the bottom stair.

Just a few feet away, I saw a body wrapped in the ceremonial colors of yellow and orange laid out on a bamboo ladder. As the ladder was transferred to a sloped area leading into the water, our group decided to cross over the bridge to observe the ceremony from the other side.

Whereas the many Catholic funerals I have attended since childhood are etched in my mind as prolonged exercises in controlled mourning, the ceremony I observed from my post across the river was swift, raw and oddly comforting to me.

The feet of the deceased were uncovered and left dangling in the water, while the face was exposed briefly to allow family members and the presiding priest to perform funeral rites. Sandal paste was applied to the forehead, verses were chanted, and a few drops of water and what looked like milk were dripped into the deceased’s mouth along with puffed rice meant to nourish the soul on its journey.

Once cleansed, the body was lifted by men from the deceased’s family and carried to a higher plane where it was draped in white and further adorned with offerings of many colors, especially red, orange and yellow flowers. Straw was layered on top of the body in preparation for the pyre.

The cries and piercing screams of the family, especially those emitting from the deceased’s daughter, traveled across the water to where we sat as the final rites were completed and the body was lifted onto the pyre and lit. The family turned and hurried away, in the direction of the holy women, the freshly-shaven child, the lonely cow.

All the while, two young orphan boys stood ready to dive into the Baghmati to retrieve the odd funeral offering—food, clothing, or coins—that might sustain them for another day. One of the boys carried a make-shift fishing rod attached to a magnet for attracting coins that had sunk into the sandy bed beneath the water.

We stood up on the other side of the river and walked slowly towards the bridge.

An Uphill Climb

When diagnosed with breast cancer at age 29, I reacted as I suppose many Americans do. I mourned the plans I had that might not be fulfilled. I feared dying before I’d lived.

Years later, at 40, I received a second diagnosis of breast cancer. This time around, I was a mom, a wife, a professional growing into my career. Again, I mourned unmet goals and feared the unknown.

As I strolled through Pashupatinath with our group that hot day in July, I was struck by the wide embrace of both the living and the dead, the thriving and the seriously ill, all gathered in one common place. Making our way to the Baghmati, we had observed men, women, children and animals fully engaged in the world of the living, but the rituals taking place at the ghats day and night are equally affirming.

The deceased are allowed to continue on their karmic journey. There is no attempt to disguise them as one of the living of this world, dressed in a favored sari and rendered lifelike with make-up and forced facial features.

While bodies burn below, patients, some of whom are critically ill, can peer out from the windows of the hospice to watch the funerals in progress.

As young boys dive into the water mixed with cremation ashes and fluids from ritual cleansings to retrieve coins to buy something to eat, mourners proceed with their farewells and other Nepalese give puja in the surrounding shrines or sit along the river to consume the edible offerings they have brought to Pashupatinath. Unlike in most American communities, where life and death are confined to specific sanitized spaces, at Pashupatinath, human joys and struggles are conveyed openly. The living and the dead coexist.

I thought about how much of a life can be wasted by perceiving a challenge like cancer as an uphill climb. We keep pulling away, faster and faster, somehow believing that a can-do attitude will prevent us from thinking about death—a foreign place in the American psyche—a little bit longer.

“That was incredible,” I said to April, who had observed the funeral a few feet away from where I stood.

“The woman wasn’t afraid to mourn,” Katie commented. “It didn’t matter who heard her.”

Through the Rain

As we gathered our things and started back across the river to the front gates, the light drops of rain that had threatened to cloud our view of Pashupatinath turned into a downpour. The fires continued to burn, men stoking them from beneath. Everywhere, men, women, children and animals fled to drier areas.

Monsoon season in Nepal is refreshingly unpredictable.

Cynthia Ryan, Ph.D. is an associate professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a freelance writer.

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