Hindus Bear Loved Ones’ Bodies to Holy Site
On banks of Bagmati river, survivors perform somber Hindu rites for the dead
By Krishna Pokharel in the Wall Street Journal
KATMANDU, Nepal—They have come by the hundreds, bearing the broken bodies of loved ones to the banks of the Bagmati River near one of Nepal’s holiest Hindu temples.
On Monday, smoke from funeral pyres and moans of grief filled the air as the people of this quake-stricken Himalayan capital came to mourn the loss of parents, children, siblings.
More than 1,200 bodies have been reduced to ash in funerals here by the Pashupatinath temple, Katmandu’s traditional cremation ground, since Saturday’s 7.8-magnitude quake, said Swami Gokulananda, a local priest.
It is a somber rite being repeated on riversides across Nepal, where more than 4,000 people have been confirmed dead after the fiercest temblor to strike the country in more than eight decades. Authorities said they expected the toll to grow as searchers reach more-remote areas.
The tragedy is a test, not only for this poor country’s government, but for its people, who have sought solace in ancient religious traditions.
Harka Bahadur Joshi—a 79-year-old farmer from eastern Nepal—walked slowly around the burning remains of his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. All were killed when their apartment building collapsed on Saturday.
Army and police rescuers recovered their bodies from the debris on Monday, Mr. Joshi said.
As prescribed by Hindu tradition, Mr. Joshi circled the pyre three times before lighting it. “May your souls rest in peace,” he chanted. “Losing you has turned my heart to stone.”
On a pyre near where Mr. Joshi was standing, Hemant Parajuli, a 33-year-old teacher, cremated his wife and daughter, both casualties of the quake.
“Now I have no house and nobody to go home to,” he said.
Army, police and emergency-service personnel are struggling to get supplies to many left homeless by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal over the weekend, killing more than 4,000 people.
Another mourner, Geeta Thapa, 66, sighed as the flames consumed the remains of her daughter. “Nobody will love me as much as she did,” she said.
Around 80% of Nepalis are Hindu. Locals say the country’s name is derived from that of the ancient Hindu sage, Ne, who established himself in the Katmandu Valley. The country is also believed to be the birthplace of the Buddha.
Pashupatinath isn't only one of Hinduism’s most important temples, it is also a Unesco World Heritage site. It was only slightly damaged by the earthquake but some smaller temples nearby were flattened.
People come from across Nepal to die in the Pashupatinath temple as they believe those who pass away there will always be reborn as humans. Many Hindus believe that bad deeds can cause a person to be reincarnated in the next life as a lower life-form.
The Bagmati river is considered sacred because it flows into the Ganges, the most sacred river for Hindus. At the funeral grounds, the Bagmati is flanked by steps that descend to platforms for cremations.
The saffron-robed priest, Mr. Gokulananda, said he is running out of straw, wood, shrouds and other funerary provisions.
“People are having to wait six hours to burn the bodies,” said Mr. Gokulananda as he walked among the pyres.
Cremation and the funeral rites are important parts of Hinduism. A proper funeral is believed to facilitate a departed soul’s transition to the next life.
Hindus traditionally try to cremate their family members within 24 hours of their death. For most of the people gathered by the Bagmati on Monday, that wasn’t possible. It took too long to retrieve their loved ones’ corpses.
Priests and their assistants repeated rites, body after body.
The dead are wrapped in yellow and white cloth and garlanded with marigolds. Then they are sprinkled with red powder and, sometimes, coins, before being laid out atop pyres on steps leading to the river.
Male family members stack wood around the bodies. Purified butter and camphor are sometimes added. Then the pyre is set alight.
On Monday, Bhim Giri, a 26-year-old hotel owner, watched two small pyres. He lost two nieces to the quake, ages 12 and 14. They were in the family apartment when the shaking started, and were buried under four stories of rubble.
It took two days to retrieve their bodies. “We had to take out the bodies ourselves,” he said, when the overwhelmed police didn’t respond to calls for assistance. “We had to use our bare hands to go through the debris and didn’t have equipment, so it took time.”