At the first sign of morning light in the sky, the myriad of oil lamps and bamboo torches that have covered the hill above Kathmandu’s Pashupatinath temple begin to stir. Slowly the lights flow down the hill like an illuminated waterfall as the hundreds of people who have spent a cold night fasting and praying descend to the riverside shrine and set their lamps afloat into the sacred Bagmati.
They will spend the next two hours on a barefoot pilgrimage around the temple complex, scattering offerings of fruit, flowers, vermillion powder and satbhiu, a mixture of seven seeds, at 108 sites in memory of loved ones who have passed away during the previous year.
Nepal’s Hindus believe that the gates to the underworld, where souls are judged and sent for rebirth, open only once or twice per year. The departed remain in this world until then, and their kin are required to mourn and worship during this time, making offerings to ensure their safe passage. The annual festival of Bala Chaturdasi in late November is an important opportunity to atone for any sins against the deceased that may trouble the conscience of the living.
Many of the mourners are returning to the spot where they bade their dead farewell: Pious Hindus wish to be cremated here, for to have their ashes mingled into the sacred river wipes away sins. The living mirror that as they place the lamps that they have kept burning all night into the water and take a cold ritual bath to wash their own sins away.
They also remember an unfortunate ancestor, Bala, who became an ogre though misfortune. All of the many stories of Bala agree that here at Pashupatinath he inadvertently consumed a bit of a corpse in his food and became addicted to human flesh. Bala soon turned into a demon, living near the cremation ghats and haunting the pyres.
Bala’s end is also told in many stories, all involving his betrayal and murder by someone he had grown to trust. In each story, Bala’s killer is acclaimed for his deed but suffers pangs of conscience for his act. To atone, he lights lamps and scatters seeds of the staple grains to appease Bala’s soul. Nepalis still emulate him, and may offer a prayer too to avoid Bala’s fate.
By the time the sun is fully risen the overnight worshippers have hurried off to fields or offices, but new mourners, less devout or less burdened by their sins, will stream in all day long to make their offerings on Nepal’s day of the dead.
John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.