PLEASE READ TO FULLY UNDERSTAND THE PHOTOGRAPHS!! Pashupatinath is a sacred and holy place boasting Hindu temples, public alters, shrines, old architecture, and is situated on both sides of the sacred Bagmati River in the eastern part of Kathmandu. Most people that travel to Nepal usually come here to get a glimpse of the temples, take a few photo’s and do a little shopping for paraphernalia in the local street stands. Another main reason why locals and tourists flock to this location is to be a witness of Kathmandu residents paying their respect to loved ones who have passed away. In Nepal they do not bury their dead, they cremate the deceased in public cremation sites that are situated along the banks of the sacred Bagmati River. These sites are outdoor and completely open to the public where you are able to view and witness the proceedings of what we westerners would call a funeral. The dead are put on steel beam structures along the river to hold the deceased body in place, then wood is placed under the body as well as on top, religious proceedings and activities take place and then the body is then burned until there is nothing left except ash. Another sign you know someone has passed away in Nepal, is occasionally you will notice Nepali men will have their heads shaven clean leaving nothing but a little lock of hair on the back of their cranium.
We all know death is a part of life but I find it very refreshing on how widely death is accepted here in Nepal and also in other parts of Asian countries. People in Nepal die everyday in the streets, villages, hospitals, and from curable/controllable diseases like the flu, diarrhea, tuberculosis, water born viruses, and infections. Road accidents with fatalities alone are a daily occurrence that attributes to the 4th greatest cause of death in Nepal. Death is an everyday occurrence in all societies around the globe, but I think in Nepal’s society most people here have seen death first hand on at least on one or more occasions and it seems to facilitate their carefree thinking in accepting inevitably what is going to be the fate of every living thing on this planet. In my opinion the majority of people at home (Canada) are afraid of dying or even the thought of it. It has become a complete taboo, and you can’t blame people for being scared, heck it still makes me a little nervous. It is the unknown, is there a white light, is it going to be lights out, at the end of the day, we just don’t know. But rather than run away from the inevitable, why not try and understand what is so frightening and see how we can learn to accept and celebrate death as equally as we accept birth.
When I heard of Pashupatinath from other travelers, I actually had no interest to see the temples, the monasteries, the entrance fees, and the cheap memorabilia you are pressured to purchase from every man, woman, or child you make eye contact with. However, my reason for coming to Pashupatinath was to visit a specific ashram that was not visited by tourists let alone many locals. It was to volunteer for a special cause that involved Nepali seniors who have either been abandoned by their families, the family cannot support them, and/or they are a disgrace to the family because of their old age and disabilities.
As you enter the grounds of Pashupatinath, there is a large square weathered brown building immediately to your right as you approach the admission gates of the several main temples that are visited by the tourists. This structure looks a little out of character compared to the rest of the buildings in the Pashupatinath grounds because it doesn’t even have a gate let alone a Nepali attendant taking your admission money. As you approach the ashram you go down a set of stone and concrete steps that descend 8 ft from the ground level. As you near the entrance, you start to hear sounds of music and voices where a set of wooden steps covered by an archway marks the entrance to the ashram. As you make your way up the steps, and under the archway, you are suddenly greeted by an array of beautiful faces chanting, singing, creating colorful music accompanied by a single drummer, and a harmonium player, while a hint of sweet incense gently lingers in the air.
The individuals that are creating this colorful music and celebrations are the residents of the ashram who greet us with an abundance of head nods, clasped hands and namastes. The ashram is completely square and there are two levels that occupy the outer square structure with an open courtyard in the center. The two indoor levels is the living quarters and homes for the ashram residents who we were welcomed by. The center courtyard is occupied with 5 major structured altars where the residents perform their daily religious beliefs and offerings. As you walk around the center temples you come to a door immediately opposite from where you entered on the other side of the ashram. As I walk through the second entrance opposite from where I entered, my senses are suddenly taken over taken by a smell that I can only describe as….death. But please do not take that word in a negative context as the word “Death” should not be have a negative stigma attached to it, as for this is one of the reasons of this particular blog post.
A woman by the name of Fanny Vandewiele has brought me to this location because she has been volunteering and living in Kathmandu for the past 2 years. This separate area connected to the main ashram has another small structure in the shape of an “L” where around another 20 senior residents live and are cared for by local and international volunteers including the Sisters of Mother Theresa (Missionary of Charity). These 20 or so residents are extremely old and suffer from blindness, dementia, down syndrome, old age, amputation, and are here to live out the rest of their natural life. As Fanny introduces me to everyone I suddenly get this warm feeling because of the joy and how similar old people are compared to 3 and 4 year old children. As I walk around taking in all the faces I immediately notice men and woman fighting with one another over a juice box, I notice a man with down syndrome constantly poking and harmlessly annoying some of the woman for his own satisfaction, I see people napping, I see people laughing, I see people grunting, I see people sitting quietly with one another saying a few words every so often, and I can’t help but think we are born into this world the same way we leave and honestly it’s quite beautiful and comforting to see.
The facility itself has working toilets, basic plumbing, running water with solar panels for hot water, beds, blankets, clothing, and food, all your basic necessities. However, it was not always like this. When Fanny came to this place to volunteer over a year ago she noticed that the condition the place was in was, lack of a better word almost inhabitable. Many years ago the Nepali government built this facility to house seniors and provide an adequate place for the seniors to live out the rest of their lives. Some years ago a Dutch man donated over 10,000 Euros to rebuild the ashram because of the lack of maintenance that was never addressed by the Pashupatinath Trust who was responsible for all the necessary up keep and maintenance. This Dutch man provided the necessary funding to provide and upgrade the living standards for the entire ashram and it’s residents. Unfortunately, like many Nepal organizations, governments, and NGO’s they are very corrupt, greedy, and lazy. The ashram was never maintained again, even after the Dutch man provided the necessary funds and the people continued to suffer greatly. One day as Fanny and the MC Sister’s were working, suddenly water started pouring in from the roofs structure and these seniors were literally sleeping in the rain. That’s when Fanny Vandewiele had had enough and decided to do something. She gained the confidence of the MC Sister’s and 4 Nepali volunteers Manish Joshi, Riti Pyakurel, Sudharsan Pradhan, Maya (Don’t have the last name), and together they pulled their contacts, skills and resources together to start a complete reconstruction of this particular facility behind the main ashram. Fanny even managed to help fund this project from her own pocket as well as organizing fundraiser’s in her home country of Belgium to cover all costs. From there a need was needed and they started to fill it facing a slew of obstacles along the way including strikes, building codes, threats, locals saying they would help but failed to ever show up, and to add insult to injury, the monsoon season was right around the corner. After a short amount of time Fanny, Manish Joshi, Riti Pyakurel, Sudharsan Pradhan, Maya (Don’t have the last name), and the MC Sister’s had done it. They had rebuilt the living quarters, installed a brand new roof with no sign of a single leak, purchased a solar panel heating system for the water tanks, built proper washroom facilities, and built a much more pleasant environment for the residents of Pashupatinath all with their very own hands.
I spent 5 days volunteering at what Fanny likes to call “A little place of Heaven” working and photographing the residents in their daily routines that would not be possible without the help of local and International volunteers, the MC Sister’s, and Fanny. It was a pleasure to be a part of such an amazing project and I advise ANYONE who wants to help in a hands on experience doing something incredible for the lives of these Nepali seniors where even the comfort of sitting on a bed, cleaning their hands after a meal, or helping them to the toilet can sometimes have a greater effect than sending a cheque to a big name organization. I truly feel money can only do 10% for a humanitarian cause, the other 90% needs to come from people that genuinely care for wanting to help, where someone can be an asset rather than a name on a donor list, where you can see the difference in front of your own eyes that person makes and contribute to the cause.
If you are ever in Kathmandu and want to be a part of something truly amazing send Fanny Vanderwiele an email and she would love for you to come join her and help volunteer with these beautiful people at the Ashram on the right hand side in Pashupatinath.
If you have any questions about the work, the locations, photography or just want to say “HI”, I would love to hear from you and hear what you have to say. Thank-you for reading and stay tuned for the next Blog post…