I recently experienced the festival of Maghe Sankranti as the only westerner in attendance in a village near Ghorahi, Dang District. The last time that I was at the festival site was during Tihar, in 2012, and things were very quiet in this beautifully wooded area, where I had previously visited the home of a Sadhu, with a man-made lake in the center. At that time I noticed some old boats sitting idle in the lake. I was also shown a small temple with an area that I was told was used for animal sacrifice. I tried to imagine what that was like but really had little idea.
As we made our way to the festival site for Maghe Sankranti, I noticed the number of people that were also arriving, the colors of the multiple orange and peanut sellers, the variety of balloons and foods, a make shift movie house and sugar cane. It was really a lot of “eye-candy” for someone who loves to take photos.
We made our way to the lake and the sacrifice site and I saw many people paying for a boat ride, while other people were bathing. Behind the temple was the sacrifice site and I started to see a number of people roasting headless carcasses over open fires and other people cleaning what had been a sheep. Crossing a small bridge we came to a line of sheep waiting to be sacrificed, being held from both ends over a bloody log. A man brought what looked to be a sword, i.e. a Khukuri, up and then down and the head went one way with the carcass being thrown another. This happened a number of times in very machine like fashion. In experiencing the quiet of this particular area during Tihar I had imagined what the “screams” might be like. But in watching the actual sacrifice I heard nothing but the sound of the Khukuri as it went up and came down.
Back in Kathmandu I thoroughly enjoy making the walk from Thamel to Sanepa Chowk, where I live. But on this particular night around Chikamungal I came upon a group of people watching the start of a funeral procession. I heard and saw a woman crying and walking around a body, although it was difficult to tell, as it was tightly wrapped in a mat with a pitamber (yellow cloth), lying on an arthi. The procession started to move with five men carrying the arthi and the woman, who must have been the wife of the deceased, continuing to wail and cry. The procession consisted mostly of men it as it made its way and crossed the Ring Road, at Teku. It’s the first time that I’ve seen all traffic stop on both sides of the road at the same time. We continued to walk to an area near Pachali, where the body was removed from the arthi, and placed on what appeared to be a slab, where various ceremonies were taking place. I soon left and didn’t wait for the body to be taken to an area on the Bagmati where it would be cremated.
I’ve witnessed cremations a number of times in Varanasi, the dressing of the bodies, purification in the Ganges and the funeral pyre. What did seem unusual in Kathmandu and Varanasi as I compared this to funerals in the US, was the public nature of the process. As most of the procession that I had witnessed stood across the road watching the ceremonies, taxis, tractors, motorcycles and cars whizzed by on the dirt road. Many people witnessed the procession, as it made its way throughout Kathmandu, which so very different from the private nature of a funeral in the US.
The public nature of things possibly makes death more acceptable and natural. Everybody on the path of the procession somehow took part, looking and then moving their hand numerous times from their head to what appeared to be their heart and back again. In the US a hearse picks up the family, who are mostly wearing sunglasses to hide their tears, of the departed, and whisks them to the funeral home, where lots of money is spent on a plot, a casket and a ceremony. But what I witnessed was not about spending on a beautiful casket, although I’m not really clear why this is the case in the US, except to support a funeral industry, or hiding tears, but was more about how this is the natural order of things.
My life during the almost past four years in India and Nepal has been so much about giving, as after all I am a VSO volunteer. I thoroughly enjoy this and have no reservations. But I have also learned so much from what I have seen. In many ways this will hopefully help me to become more accepting of the natural order of things as the contrast between life and death in this part of the world and the US is so very stark. As I spend more time in this part of the world and become more connected I hope that when I am no more, I also will be cremated on the banks of one of the sacred rivers and mix and flow with generations of those that have gone before me.