A Cremation and a Kumari

by Violet St. Clair

A riverside cremation and an appointment with a child goddess punctuate a traveler’s brief time in Kathmandu.

Kathmandu, surrounded by the Himalayas and splashed in color, stunned. From the moment I left Tribhuvan Airport, I didn’t know where to look, and the clock was ticking. I had only four days.

The mass of jungled cords and wires above the streets reflected the teeming tangle of motorbikes, vehicles, cows, dogs and people – throngs of people on the ground below. It was vibrant, humanity on the move helter-skelter, joined by the occasional macaque scampering and swinging across the cables. The honking was unrelenting, and lanes were loosely, creatively, terrifyingly interpreted. On either side of the roads there were towering crates of Orange Crush and Pepsi, along with ramshackle carts of tomatoes, melons and bananas. The buildings and shops looked thrown together, turbulent. Nothing fit, yet it was all so irresistible, ungovernable. Out one window was a group of men, bare-chested in flip flops, soaping up with buckets of gray water, and out the opposite window women in long skirts carried awkward bundles on their backs but strapped to their foreheads, bent with their burdens, but casually talking amongst themselves. Out of both windows, little hands selling matches and bits of food tried to entice me. Add to that heaps and heaps of construction dust, and you have one gaping tourist before nightfall. On my first day, I was already slipping into overload. On the corner, close to my hotel, a barber covered his mirror with a cloth and hobbled over to the bridge for a smoke. Closed for the day. Me, too.

The next morning, rested and rinsed free of the previous day’s bare-knuckle hullabaloo, I was ready to absorb everything on my agenda; a burning, and a brief meeting with a 4-year-old living goddess.

The Bagmati River, holy to Hindus and Buddhists alike, flows through Kathmandu and eventually joins the holiest Hindu River, Ma Ganga, the Ganges. I would be on it in a few days when heading to Varanasi. Into its torpid waters, the ash remains of countless generations of Nepalis have been poured. I was headed to the eastern bank of the river just opposite Pashupatinath Temple. The eyes of the Buddha were everywhere: doors, temples, t-shirts, cars. They reminded me of the blue eye of Turkey.

The pathway leading up the hill to where the cremation ceremonies could be observed at a respectable distance had plenty to distract and tempt: turquoise masks of Ganesha and Shiva, Tibetan singing bowls, rich red scarves and beaded bangles. Cows and dogs wandered, and the monkeys kept the tourists entertained but the sellers wary. They were deviously light fingered and saucy. Caps, water bottles, sandwiches, and even the painful yanking of a dangling earring taught me to keep my distance.

At the top of the hill, there were several fires sending up swaths of smoke. The sight was immediately compelling. Cremation takes time, and the queues seldom dwindle. Crowds of mourners arrived and dispersed endlessly. Over to the left by the bridge, a fiesta of tangerine-coloured marigolds were piled high and jumbled together for the mourners to place on the bodies. On a gray day with blurring swirls of ashen smoke, by a river almost black with pollution, this was the brightest bit of color and warmth.

The bodies came shrouded in white on wooden stretchers. After dipping the feet in the waters of the Bagmati three times, they were then placed on pyres of wood, and the rituals began. One look at that tired, garbage-choked river begged an end to the tradition, but it is centuries old and deeply entrenched. There is a fable that celebrates the Bagmati as the bubbling laughter of Shiva. Perhaps, once. But here it turns into the tears of Shiva. Along with cremations, the river is also the place for holy bathing and cleansing. Both occurred throughout my time on the hill, along with some naughty boys fishing for the coin offerings thrown into the poisonous murk.

Although straw batches, spices, and incense are spread out along the body, the fire begins near the mouth. Or in the mouth, from what I could see. A son, I was told, performed the ceremony that would release the positive energy or soul of his mother to reincarnate anew. My god, I thought him brave. My mother had passed away recently. She, too, had been cremated. Alone. In a cremation chamber. Far from those who loved her. I received her ashes in an orange urn a few days later. I wondered, as this mother began her final transformation, surrounded by family and friends, which way had best honored the life and body of a loved one. That night I dreamt of apricots and pumpkins and my mother planting marigolds in her garden. A year later, I am still lost in ambiguity.

Then, there was Durbar Square, the complete antithesis and antidote; fascinating, streaming with life and opulent with pigeons, ferocities, and temples. Every eye-full puzzled. Street shrines, some with the fresh remains of a recent sacrifice; tumbling temples and dusty piles of bricks and masonry, all courtesy of the 2015 earthquake; long line-ups of men along a chain link fence reading pages and pages from a variety of tacked up Nepali newspapers; divine statues of creatures and gods, the stuff of unvarnished childhood nightmares. And always, the ever-present heaps of fire-hued garlands. All of these images clamored for attention like a school yard of children: “Look at me! Look at me!” I wanted to stay longer, much, much longer, and enjoy a lassi at a cafe by the banks of this incredible stream of life, but I had an appointment with the Kumari, a living goddess, only 4 years old.

There are three Kumaris in Nepal, but the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu is the most important one. She lives in the Kumar Ghar (Palace) in Durbar Square and can only leave the palace a handful of times for special festivities and rituals. She is always carried; her feet may not touch the ground. She is believed to be the embodiment of the Hindu goddess Taleju. When a Kumari is chosen – and many families offer up their young daughters for this honor – she must undergo a long and specific list of trials and criteria. At the head of the list: premenstrual. At the onset of menstruation, the search begins anew for the next Kumari. She must also be a virgin with a perfect and pure body and possess enough bravery to witness several sacrifices without tears or dread. There are dozens of other demands, and I wondered how they judged some of the more exotic stipulations, like having the chest of a lion and the lashes of a cow.

The Royal Kumari was new to the role, just 4 years old. Although photos were prohibited, she will appear from time to time on the balcony in the inner courtyard of her home. The architecture of the palace was supported everywhere with long stakes of wood, again a lasting reminder of the 2015 earthquake. But it was still rich with intricate designs and carvings of deities, beasts, and warriors. We waited patiently, all cameras put away, our empty hands in full view. 

She came surrounded by her watchful attendants; small and so vulnerable-looking with pouty little lips downturned in bemusement. We stared at her and smiled. She looked so young, like a doll in her ceremonious clothing. She gazed at us solemnly, perplexed but intrigued by these “oddities” filling her courtyard and observing her silently. And then, she was gone. The crowd began to chatter.

“About 40 seconds, I’d say.”

“She looked so tiny.”

“She should be out playing.”

“How’s she going to go back to normal life when this is all over?”

As a teacher, I was mesmerized by that little face: somber, reserved, placid. Did she ever throw dishes across the room? Cuddle a stuffed animal? Do a cartwheel? And how does a living goddess with devotees at her beck and call return to her home in the Nepali countryside?

After the glow of a spicy sunset, the brouhaha of sight and sound mellowed, and a more stygian nightfall took over, at times a little fearsome. The fantastical play of shadow and glow brought out the shivers with each outing. Now, as I think back, the images of those nights crowd and collide in bursts of sepia-hued flashes; a blur of people and vehicles square dancing in unpredictable patterns, erratic clusters of stalls and shops in pale pools of light, contrasting with dark narrow side streets, the jump of a monkey, the inertia of sleeping dogs, huddles of humanity smoking and smiling. Along the Bagmati, a solitary man meditating in front of his home, an enormous box with prayer flags. Fatigue, fear, and Kathmandu after dusk; a city of visual intricacies. 

On my last day, I flew over the Himalayas toward Varanasi, but some part of me was still wandering the streets and temples of Kathmandu. A year later, a certain shade of orange, a flight of pigeons, a swath of fluttering prayer flags can still transport me there. Four days? Please. Four years wouldn’t have been enough time. Kathmandu is no country’s add-on. I should have stayed longer. Much, much longer.

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