By Kate Groninger
Countless people who have visited India or Nepal have written about India or Nepal. The adjectives and superlatives are accurate, guidebooks rightly explain the Dos and Don’ts, proposed itineraries are meticulous, and photos punctuate narratives in high resolution. Reports of India and Nepal’s complexity are not overstated. At times it can be overstimulating, it is always mesmerizing.
India asks you to be engaged, and Nepal asks you to be in the moment. They are loud and hot and colorful and busy, and they force you to pay attention. It is an emotional travel that makes you feel very much alive. Visiting India and Nepal is the equivalent of focusing a camera, when one thing brings everything into focus.
Two experiences little discussed in guidebooks exemplify that focus: watching Hindu funeral pyres blaze in Kathmandu, Nepal, and feeding visitors from the Sikh kitchens in New Delhi, India.
Nepal, Kathmandu cremations
Kathmandu, Nepal, suffered an earthquake in 2015, and the rubble remains. I traveled there with my brother and a small group of his colleagues, hospice and palliative care physicians, during the quiet season before the Mt. Everest climbers arrived. Nepal is a developing nation, and the Yak & Yeti Hotel is an oasis in the city center that obscures the poverty and post-earthquake rebuilding efforts.
It is a fifteen-minute taxi ride from the walled and blooming confines of Yak & Yeti to the Pashupatinath Temple complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Pashupatinath is a collection of 518 Hindu temples, ashrams, and ghats (cremation platforms for the funeral pyres), dedicated to Pashupati, an incarnation of the Hindu god Shiva as Lord of the Animals.
Only Hindus are permitted inside the temple buildings, and other visitors may wander the grounds and witness (from a respectful distance) the daily cremations along the banks of the sacred Bagmati River. The site is open daily from 4am-9pm, but is closed mid-day, so the best time to visit is early morning or late evening. Allow up to two hours for your visit, and it is easiest for your departure to arrange for the taxi to wait.
Sadhus, wandering ascetic yogis, will pose for photographs with visitors, and will expect a donation in return. Some Sadhus are authentic, but many dress up for the pilgrims and tourists for cash, and it is difficult to determine the difference.
From our vantage point, we counted eight bodies wrapped in white awaiting cremation. After a procession, the body is placed on the steps adjacent to the river to be washed in the river’s holy water. Family members gather, photograph and video the process, and some mourn and sob. The body is moved to a cremation platform, and the pyre set alight. The smoke rises, and after the pyre is reduced to ashes, it is pushed into the quiet river. Local women are washing clothes in the river downstream, and children wade below the pyres, some searching for valuables in the run-off.
Monkeys abound, and the occasional cow wanders through. There is colorful attire, and honking car horns sound in the distance. The scent of marigolds used as offerings comingles with the specific smell of cremated bodies. The site embodies faith, culture, and tradition. It is holy and human. The cremations are humbling, sobering, but also touching.
India, sharing food as worship
The Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a significant Sikh house of worship, sits in central New Delhi. The grounds include a shrine, a large pool with holy waters, a school, and a hospital. All visitors cover their heads and walk barefoot through the tranquil complex as the rhythmic holy
Sikh text that contains teachings from the ten Sikh Gurus, the last of whom died in 1708, is read aloud. The book itself is worshipped and honored as the last living Guru. I found the most compelling form of worship at the complex, though, located past the shrine beyond a large courtyard in the food hall and kitchens (langar).
For 500 years Sikhs have been feeding people. Every Gurudwara across the world offers free meals in its langar where all visitors eat together as equals. Equality is a core Sikh ideology that rejects the caste system and embraces social and religious differences. Everyone is welcome, no one turned away, and the food never runs out. The langar is not a soup kitchen, but a community kitchen. Some visitors are homeless, but most are not.
More than 10,000 meals are served at the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib langar each day. The cooking, feeding, and cleaning process is a system run with superlative efficiency. Each sitting lasts roughly 30 minutes, and the process runs from 11am until after midnight. All the food is donated, and the kitchen staffed by volunteers. Volunteers prepare, cook, serve, and clean up after the meal. Any visitor can receive a meal, and can also participate in the meal preparation alongside the Sikh volunteers regardless of faith or socioeconomic background.
In the kitchen, enormous black iron cauldrons bubble over gas flames, as volunteers stir the mixtures. One set of volunteers slice mountains of vegetables, as another sit on low benches making chapatti, rolling out dough, grilling it into a golden-brown flatbread, and flipping them from the hot griddle into wide baskets. Lunch consists of a lightly spiced basmati rice, dal, vegetables, spiced potatoes, freshly baked chapatti bread, and kheer, a rice pudding dessert.
The large food hall is hot, but its large ceiling fans move air, providing some relief. People awaiting the meal sit quietly outside as the marble floor is swept and mopped after each serving. Long, skinny mats are rolled out in neat rows separated by aisles wide enough for volunteers to proceed down, handing-out stainless steel trays and spoons to each person. The diners sit barefoot, back-to-back and side-by-side.
Volunteers walk down the rows, placing warm chapatti into each diner’s upturned hands, followed closely by another group of volunteers carrying buckets of food that they spoon onto each tray. Dirty dishes are brought to other waiting volunteers who clean each tray, spoon, and mug for tea. Volunteers of all ages quickly prepare the large room again for the next meal.
This is not only a food experience, but an act of worship. Amidst the cooking, eating, and cleaning, laughter and thanksgiving permeate the langar.