Background Cultural Information on the Bagmati River & Pashupatinath Temple
The Bagmati River originates high in the Shivapuri Hills near the village of Bagdwar some 15 kilometers north of the Kathmandu Valley. The river flows through the heart of the Kathmandu Valley and continues downwards through the southern plains to join the Holy Ganges in India. The average annual rainfall in the area of the valley is 1,900 mm, 80% of which falls during the monsoon season from June to September. The tributaries that feed the river start from natural springs and are increased by rainfall within their hilly watersheds lying above the valley. The Bagmati River passes by the holy Pashupatinath Temple, a religious symbol not only for the Hindus living in Nepal but also for devotees in India and other South Asian countries. The temple is one of the oldest and most revered temples in Nepal originating in 400 A.D.
The Bagmati River plays a key role in religious and cultural festivals and is a means of uniting different ethnic groups under a shared umbrella of religious practices. The river is used for religious ceremonies, as a water source, for crop cultivation, and for chemical and human waste disposal. The Pashupatinath Temple is the largest cremation site in Nepal with an average of 37 cremations a day. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, the protector. The word can be broken apart to explain its meaning: organism (pash), protector (pati), and lord (nath). Hindus believe that it is only through a sacred ritual performed at one of the Pashupatinath Temples that the body and spirit of the deceased can be released from the repeated cycles and struggle of birth and death that are at the root of the Hindu belief in reincarnation. This ritual allows the deceased to achieve nirvana, or oneness with the Supreme Being. It is no surprise, then, that the majority of temples, monuments, and shrines in the Kathmandu Valley are situated in close proximity to the Bagamati River banks.
If possible, all Nepalese aim to make their ceremonial and festive washing in the river segment flowing past Pashupatinath Temple. The temple area incudes one large temple and 492 small temples situated in the vicinity of the Bagmati River banks. Every year, thousands of people from around the world, but especially Asia, come to worship at the Temple. The dead are brought to the temple to be burned at the most important cremation site in the Kathmandu Valley. Beyond its use in purification, whether of the living or the dead, the river itself is worshiped because it is said to bestow divine blessings on the people of the Kathmandu Valley. In recognition of its role in the lives of the people of the valley and beyond, UNESCO has listed the Pashupatinath Temple as a World Heritage Cultural Site. The conservation and protection of the river upon which so much of religious life at the temple revolves is, therefore, crucial.
Click on the photo to see a series of images from a cremation ritual at Pashupatinath Temple.