18 – 20 May 2014
“Is it ok if I watch, too?” I asked, as the man who had, unasked and unannounced, appointed himself as our guide led us around behind the remnants of a small stone building.
“Yes, of course, Madame, like I told you, we are all born naked,” he replied.
We were at Pashupatinath, a Shiva temple in Kathmandu, where we had just witnessed the cremation of an old man.
“Under the blanket, the body is naked. As we are born naked, so we die naked. The fire starts in the mouth. If it is a father, the oldest son lights it, if a mother, then the youngest son. If there is no son, then a Brahmin is called.”
I made an indignant noise, thinking “I’m PERFECTLY capable of starting a fire in someone’s mouth, come ON.”
“That is the way it is, madame, I’m sorry.”
I felt sad. But not sad about death: as I watched the sticks start to burn in the old man’s mouth, I could see the power in this way of saying goodbye.
There were several cremation platforms along the trickle of river, and the dogs and cattle were plentiful. I noticed myself starting to analyze what the puddles of water probably contained and sidelined that thought process immediately.
The smoke smelled BAD.
Before the cremation ceremony, though, we had noticed a different kind of smoke when our guide pointed out a tiny hut crammed with orange-clad sadhus singing around a fire. I could hardly see them for all the smoke.
“They smoke the marijuana, they are allowed to, it is part of their spiritual process,” our guide said. The sadhus beckoned enthusiastically for us to join them, but we failed to muster the courage to go hotbox with this particular bunch of holy men.
While I was resting by their hut recovering from the cremation smoke, one of them, a young man who was actually kinda cute, noticed me and waved us over to show us….something.
“He can lift a heavy weight with his penis. He wants to show you,” our guide said.
“Umm….” I said.
The young sadhu was still waving excitedly.
“No, no, I don’t think so, thank you,” I tried to say, walking away. I wasn’t sure what exactly was being offered and anyway I wasn’t comfortable – it seemed like watching would be treating the man like a sideshow, exactly the kind of thing I abhor about being Western tourists.
But the young holy man was really insistent, and our guide kept encouraging us to say yes. I must admit that we threw our reservations to the wind and decided to watch. The fact that we were encouraged to doesn’t necessarily make it more ok.
We had just watched a human body burn to ash (ok ok, it started to burn to ash – the whole process takes 3-4 hours), so this didn’t seem quite so strange.
But, maybe I still wanted an out, or maybe I really was worried that my female presence would be offensive, so I asked, “Is it ok if I watch, too?”
In a courtyard littered with different Shiva lingam shrines, next to the cremation platforms, we sat behind a small structure, away from other temple visitors, and waited while the sadhu laboriously rolled a small-suitcase-sized piece of cement over to us. He took off his clothes, tied his sarong to the boulder and then made Jacob try to lift it (he barely got it an inch off the ground with both hands). The sadhu wrapped his flaccid penis around the middle of the pole a couple times and then spun the pole a turn and a half, putting it perpendicular to himself and between his legs. He put the pole through the loop in the sarong tied to the boulder. Then, with one hand where the sarong attached to the pole, he lifted. The boulder came off the ground (who knows how it was actually being lifted, though – I didn’t really want to look closely and it happened pretty fast).
What did I feel, watching this unexpected act? No shock or repulsion. Sadness, lots of sadness. His faced was pinched, and his eyes showed pain. It was obviously difficult. I wasn’t sure whether to applaud or cry – cry for me, for him, for what I had done with my Western privilege. Then, he put the boulder down, twisted the pole to lay across his thighs, and beckoned our guide over, who immediately went and stood on the pole. The sadhu lifted his hands – the look on his face was not something I would like to see again. The camera couldn’t capture the expression in my memory.
Then it was over. He asked us to pay him. I was admiring, and also sorry. Our guide carried on to the next part of the temple like nothing had happened, making sure we were out of the way when a bunch of bulls ran toward us across a narrow bridge, talking about Kali and Shiva, describing the history of each part of the temple complex and showing us lots more sadhus, all of whom wanted to show us something – 40-year-long dreadlocks, iron underwear – or take pictures with us. For a price.
That was Kathmandu – we never knew what to expect. The city felt post-apocalyptic: dirt roads in the middle of town, people wearing masks to breathe, threadbare taxis held together with duct tape and a prayer. Huge piles of rocks everywhere. The electricity flickered on and off (mostly off, it seemed) at all hours. It was chaos, but it felt friendly. Walking the streets, we could pass a shrine to a toothache god, play and contemplate purchasing a gleaming harmonium at a tiny hole of a shop, find Buddhist shrines right next to Shiva temples, almost get run over by an insect-like buggy contraption with a hinge between the exposed motor and the carriage, and stumble through archways to exhale in the sudden serenity of an unexpected courtyard.
One morning, on the way to Boudhanath, the largest stupa in Nepal and most important Tibetan Buddhist site outside of Tibet, we asked our taxi driver to take us to a place where we could eat what the Nepalese eat for breakfast.
He took us to a cement building with a sign that said “Yak Kitchen.” I was already afraid before I even stepped inside. The door was a filthy tapestry that we pushed aside. Dust hung from the low ceiling in the dim and dirty interior. All the surfaces seemed coated with grime. In a windowless back room, a woman stirred a giant pot and a boy turned a hand-cranked wheel to roll dough. We happened to sit at a table with two other Nepalese men who looked clean and fit; they were wearing those sporty wicking hiking undershirts. When we had been served our unbelievably delicious (I’m not kidding – I dream of having breakfast that good again) meal of potatoes and chapati, one of the men spoke to us. He was a tour guide for French tourists.
And so, at my first breakfast in Kathmandu, I found myself speaking French with a Sherpa in a cramped, filthy room while eating potatoes. It was possibly not yet 7am. We still had a Buddhist stupa, a Shiva shrine, and (unbeknownst to us) an interesting exhibition from a sadhu ahead of us.
Just a typical day in Nepal, I guess.