About a couple of months ago I spent some time in Benares, where one day, while walking to the Manikarnika Ghat, I chanced upon the Pashupatinath Temple, built there about two centuries ago by the king of Nepal.
I was immediately awestruck by the peace that prevailed over the temple. You could stand on its terrace and gaze at the Ganga without realising you are in Benares, a city overrun by pilgrims: just the perfect place for a one-to-one with Pashupatinath, or Shiva — my favourite god.
But since the temple is located right next to Manikarnika, India’s most famous cremation ground, you cannot visit — or exit — it without noticing the piles of wood or the smoke rising from the various pyres. Was the temple purposely built near Manikarnika so that devotees could realise that even if Shiva granted their prayers, they could not escape one reality, which was death?
I wasn’t sure of that, but during my stay in Benares, I visited the Pashupatinath Temple several times, and during what turned out to be my final visit, a young caretaker gifted me with a poster of the original Pashupatinath Temple, located in Kathmandu. I wanted to be in Kathmandu that very moment — just to complete the journey. But I did not see myself travelling to Nepal in the near future, and so I accepted the poster and told myself, “Okay, someday.” I had no idea, back then, that ‘someday’ would arrive so soon.
I have been in Kathmandu for the past two days now, and since today happened to be my birthday, I decided to begin the day with a visit to the Pashupatinath Temple. I prayed for myself and for people who matter to me, and then moved to the rear side of the temple — to a terrace overlooking the Bagmati River.
As I looked down the terrace, I saw a Manikarnika-like ghat below me —there were bodies either being cremated or being prepared for cremation — only that the Bagmati turned out to be so unbelievably narrow and shallow that you could hardly call it a river. Oh, the familiar smell of burning flesh!
On the steps across the river stood mourners — friends and distant family members of the deceased — who weren’t directly involved in the rituals of cremation. There was something very dignified and official — and not impersonal, as it happens in Manikarnika — about these cremations.
Suddenly it struck me that I was the birthday boy, who should be celebrating birth and not observing death, and I moved away from the terrace — but not without the reinforced realisation that every single birth has to meet death someday.
Perhaps that is why the two Pashupatinath temples — in Benares and in Kathmandu — adjoin cremation ghats, so that devotees know that no matter how much they please Shiva, they cannot escape death.
I wouldn’t have thought on these lines had I been 10 years younger: I would have got drunk — or had mindless sex — to celebrate my birthday. But once you turn 45, as I did today, you realise that death is a part of life. It is a different matter that you still feel your life has only just begun — miles to go before you sleep.