13 Days of mourning at Kriyaputri Bhawan, Pashupatinath. Photo by Thomas L. Kelly
On the plane from Finland, Komal Poudel imagined how happy her mother would be to see her. Finally, she thought, they’d have time to spend together. She could still picture her mothr by the cooking fire, welcoming her home from school by saying, “Eat first, then study.” Few girls in their village had gone to school in those days, so it was a bittersweet irony that her life abroad, which kept them apart, would never have happened without her mother’s pioneering spirit. Now her mother was in the hospital with asthma, but everyone said she was doing fine. Komal couldn’t wait to give her a hug.
Relatives met her at the Kathmandu airport and they all piled into a car. “Let’s go directly to the hospital,” Komal urged. There was a sudden silence. “Auntie,” said one relative gently, “we have to go to Pashupati.” It felt to Komal as if her world went dark; Mother had passed away.
In today’s Kathmandu, Pashupati means a lot of things. The ancient temple to Shiva called Pashupatinath is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the Hindu world. Its surrounding grounds are a popular spot for morning walks, a favored place for major family rituals and a frequent destination on casual outings that include a quick stop for darshan. If you’re a Hindu in Kathmandu, you’ll go there often, and it’s usually a pleasant occasion.
But Komal knew what it meant at that dark moment. Up to 95 percent of all people who pass away in Kathmandu are cremated on the ghats by the temple, estimates Govinda Tandan, member secretary of the Pashupati Area Development Trust. On some days there are over 50 funerals. Few tourists who snap pictures of the shrouded, marigold-covered bodies burning along the Bagmati River realize that unlike Western funerals that happen many days after death, the person being cremated typically passed away just a few hours earlier and the family’s grief is woefully fresh.
And so it was that Komal, with her suitcase still in the car and her legs shaking, found herself approaching the yellow-wrapped body of the mother she had longed to hug. All around was a sad blur of activity: lighting the fire, circling the pyre, chanting the prayers. Then she and her siblings retired to a bare, brick-floored room a few hundred yards from the riverbank to experience the evolving culture of mourning in the modern Hindu world.
Thirteen Days in a Separate Space
The Kriyaputri Bhawan is a kind of ashram for mourners where pujas are conducted, visitors received and emotions healed. A few years ago it was a ramshackle building with only a dozen rooms, and while mourning near Pashupatinath was prized in theory, conditions were cramped and services were minimal. Now it would be hard to find a resident of Kathmandu who hasn’t been to the Kriyaputri Bhawan. An estimated 15,000 people come by each month, and its 52 rooms have been consistently full since it was expanded with the help of funds from Upendra Mahato. “If we had 500 rooms, they’d be full, too. There’s that much demand,” Tandan explains.
The popularity of the Kriyaputri Bhawan can be traced in part to the way it answers a problem: How can traditions be maintained in a changing world? Even though Hindu practices are deeply embedded in everyday life in Nepal, where 81 percent are Hindu and Hinduism was the state religion until 2006, the prescribed 13 days of mourning involve a set of rituals and restrictions that are increasingly hard to follow in urbanized, tight-packed Kathmandu.
To fully picture this clash of worlds, think of a village like the one where Komal grew up. The family’s priest would live close by, and there would be helpers to find everything for rituals, much of which would be available easily at little or no cost: kusha grass, betel nuts and coconuts to represent the Gods; home-made leaf plates that would be ritually pure; a cow to aid symbolically in the journey to the afterlife.
Space would be created and purified in a corner of the home for mourners to sleep on the floor with their heads to the north (the position in which the body was burned). Crowds that came to offer condolences would be fed by neighbors and distant relatives not in deep mourning; and the taboo against touching a mourner, who is ritually impure, would ensure a level of privacy and personal space for the grieving family. Extended family and friends would gather on porches and under shade trees as the immediate family and priest conducted rituals passed down from an ancient world with a rural heart.
That’s still the way many people live in Nepal, but not in Kathmandu. Flats are crowded, and even families with large homes often live on one floor and rent out the rest for extra income. There is little space for major rituals or throngs of visitors. And since Kathmandu has few street names or addresses, a family mourning at home spends a lot of time on the cell phone, giving directions to hundreds of visitors.
Everyone, though, knows Pashupatinath. And at the Kriyaputri Bhawan, everything is available for mourners, from ritual items to a peaceful environment to a connection with the cycles of life. “It helps that everyone here is going through the same experience,” offers Pushpa Kumal Subedi, a demography professor mourning his mother-in-law. “In a village, you would have neighbors saying, ‘This is the nature of life.’ The city isn’t like that. But here everyone has lost someone and they understand.”
At sunrise, hundreds of mourners wake up to bathe in crystalline spring water from the waterspouts, step into natural rice-straw sandals for purity’s sake and wrap themselves in yards of unsewn white cloth as a sign of purity and peace. In this democracy of grief, it’s impossible to tell if a mourner is a laborer or a teacher, a taxi driver or a doctor from Virginia. Take away the cell phones and spectacles, and they could be their own ancestors. It’s hard to miss the powerful impression that each person is just the current link in a long unbroken chain.
Outside the door of each family’s room is a garlanded photo of the person being mourned, so that walking the veranda is a glimpse of lives remembered. Chanting in Sanskrit comes for hours from the courtyard where final pujas are conducted, while the square is flanked by a line of shrines for daily rituals. A typical mourner staying for 13 days will easily catch a glimpse of some 500 separate rituals as they share the space with a shifting cast of hundreds of people, each with their own stories.
On one veranda a family is remembering a little girl called Gunumaya, or Chatty, who loved to ride across the hills on her father’s horse and grew up to memorize the Bhagavad Gita. Her name was Bhargavi Devi Bhetwal and she died at 83, felled by high blood pressure, diabetes, and Parkinson’s Disease, but that’s not how they want to remember her. Somehow she was always that young girl with a curious mind, even when she was old and frail.
Around one of the sacred fires in the courtyard, another family shared stories of a miracle. “She prayed every day at the temple to the Goddess and asked Her to teach her to read,” recalls Pratibha Subedi of Halifax, Canada, as she watched the final rites for her grandmother, Devaka Poudel. “Then one day, she could read.”
Literacy was rare in Nepal at that time, since schools were almost non-existent—and women were almost never literate, no matter their family status. “She didn’t even go to Class One,” notes another grandchild, veterinarian Apar Poudel. “It just came to her after she prayed. So she was a deep believer. She could even read Sanskrit. She had so many religious books. All her friends would come and listen to her read.”
Tradition Followed and Questioned
There was no question the family would follow all the customs for their devout elder, such as the ritual feeding of her soul with a pinda (rice ball) for 10 days, one day for each month in the womb, with her children repaying her for the gift of life by nourishing her symbolically as she formed a new body for her next phase of existence.
They also practiced a series of austerities, including not eating salt for 13 days. Tandan, the scholar and member secretary of the Pashupati Area Development Trust, notes that this custom’s deep roots in Nepal may relate to the historical status of salt as a precious commodity transported from the sea or Tibetan plateau. Refraining from it, he says, allowed people to distribute it to others.
Salt is seen as stimulating to the jnanendriyas (the sensory organs) and karmendriyas (the working faculties), and shunning it for a period helps the mourner to focus on the present, he says. Mourners also abstain from oil and spices. To give up the pleasures and necessities that are normally taken for granted—from flavorful food to the comfort of your own bed—is also a way to express the importance of parents, who, after all, give people a life they also take for granted.
Typically, the mourners who sleep at the Kriyaputri Bhawan are the sons, daughters, and daughters-in-law of the deceased, who engage in the strictest austerities and greatest number of rituals. Others may stay to offer support or can mourn at home for the period of time dictated by kinship and custom. Practices across the Hindu world follow a similar pattern, but differ in detail based on relationship, stage of life, caste and gender, as well as community and regional customs. Mourning has adapted in large and small ways over the centuries, and shortened versions have also evolved. The tradition, though, has its critics. In Nepal, several political leaders in recent years chose not to do kriya for their parents, sparking both disapproval and a discussion about the relevance of strict old customs.
One challenge, of course, can be the cost. A full period of mourning, with all the rituals and expense of feeding a steady stream of mourners for days, can cost over $1,500. Rooms at the Kriyaputri Bhawan are inexpensive; a basic room costs 60 Nepali rupees a night (about 60 cents) and sleeps many people, while a room with an attached bath costs 250 rupees a night (about $2.50). Still, the costs of a 13-day mourning period add up, as funerals do in other cultures. The average cost of a typical American funeral is about $10,000. It’s hard to make a comparison, given the differences between salaries, cost of living, and the fact that non-Hindu funerals in the West are one-day affairs without a mourning period; but in both parts of the world, the activities surrounding a funeral can easily exceed several months’ salary. And it’s undeniable that the austerities can be tough.
What do the mourners at the Kriyaputri Bhawan think? “Rituals ought to be done, but according to your own choice and circumstances,” says Jivan Poudel, a retired bureaucrat. “It seems that some customs, like not eating salt, might even be harmful to the body.”
Tandan, of the Pashupati Area Development Trust, supports the notion of thoughtful adaptation. “Hinduism is a river rather than a pond,” he says. If it was a pond, it could have become stagnant and dried up ages ago. But a river changes its course over time and develops tributaries and branches. “A river is flexible. It takes its course based on the needs it encounters. That’s why Hinduism has survived.”
Still, people tend to agree that the heart of the custom is important to preserve. “It gives respect to the person who died, and traditions always have a logical basis,” says Apar Poudel. “I think this one exists so there won’t be any frustration or depression afterwards and we’ll feel at peace.” He followed all of the rituals for his grandmother, including salt abstinence, and felt it was a purifying process that initially caused him to feel lethargic—almost as if his body was in tune with the sadness of his grandmother’s death—but left him with a feeling of balance and renewal.
Last rites may seem like the end of a person’s story, but the end of one story is the start of another. Late at night in the austere room where Komal went into mourning with siblings after flying in from Finland, the conversation kept cycling back to their parents and the best way to honor their legacy.
Komal and her siblings—Jalpa Bhusal, Pavitra Gaire, and Indramani Chundali—recalled their mother’s heartfelt support for an education she never received. They recalled their late father, known in the village as Kancha Ved, or young chanter of the Vedas, who inspired change for miles around when he sent all of his daughters to school. As they talked and prayed together, they vowed to carry on their parents’ devotion to education with a scholarship in their names at the old village school. Goma and Tikaram Chundali are gone, but their time on Earth will be remembered by bringing a better future to others.
Each day at the Kriyaputri Bhawan, itself a memorial to a beloved mother, people perform a final act of devotion to a loved one whose story seems finished, and then discover it’s not the end of the story after all. In the shadow of Pashupatinath, the cycle of life carries on.
Understanding the Rituals: From Spirit to Ancestors
In Hindu Cosmology, the path to the afterlife is an epic journey that is influenced by the person’s actions during life but is also assisted by relatives in the days after the soul’s departure.
This belief, like others, varies across the vast Hindu world and can be understood on many levels. The soul’s journey across the ghost-riddled plains and dangerous rivers of the Pretaloka (realm of the spirits) until it joins the ancestors in the Pitriloka (realm of the ancestors) can be seen as a literal voyage through alternate realms, as a symbolic envisioning of the process of death and rebirth, or as elements of both. Rites, like beliefs, also vary by family background, regional culture, community, and devotional preference.
For the Nepalis who stay near Pashupatinath to perform the duties to the dead known as antyesti kriya or antim samskara, the 13-day period of deep mourning involves specific actions that are viewed as a final act of assistance the living can give to departed family members.
The performance of kriya is one of the crucial samskaras, or rites of passage, that mark the journey of a Hindu through life and engage not just the recipient but the whole family. Traditions vary, but there are often said to be 16 rites of passage. The first are conducted before birth; the last involves a series of rituals after the soul has left the body to help it complete its transformation from a preta, or disconnected spirit, into a pitri, or honored ancestor.
In the end, whether or not a soul finds liberation depends on the person’s life, their previous lives, and their karma, says Govinda Tandan, member secretary of the Pashupati Area Development Trust and a scholar of history and culture. It’s often feared that a soul could be doomed to a purgatorial limbo as a bhuta, often translated as ghost, if a family fails to conduct the final rites. But in Tandan’s view, rituals or the lack of them can’t guarantee liberation or sentence a soul to the limbo of ghosts. “It’s not that easy,” he says. On a spiritual level, the deceased is being helped to a positive place in the next stage of existence by the prayers and gratitude of kin. The series of rituals ease the transition for survivors and symbolize the powerful connection between individuals and families, the living and the dead, the past and the present.
What is Required and Why?
What are some of the ritual requirements, and what do they mean? Lila Prasad Acharya has worked as a priest at the Kriyaputri Bhawan since 2005, when he returned to Nepal after years of studying and practicing in India. Almost every day he leads families through the rituals and engages in conversation about their meaning. Here is how some of the components can be understood.
Ritual Purity: All the mourners wear white unsewn cloth to ensure their purity; white is used because it symbolizes peace and shows openly whether it’s clean or unclean. Mourners sit on wool blankets because wool has a striking natural feature; water will run off it, a symbolic indication of incorruptibility. Rice straw is used in mattresses and sandals because mourning is a time to use only simple products from nature that traditionally were easily available and easily disposed of. Hair is shaved to keep it from dropping into any of the foods or ritual substances and contaminating it, since all of the offerings must be pure.
Mourners are considered impure, which does not mean “bad” but rather a state of vulnerability and distress. It’s an unsettled period when the spirit of the deceased is still attached in a subtle sense to the living, and neither the living nor the dead has quite moved on. Working to purify the body aids in purifying and focusing the mind.
A person who is ritually impure also is not in the right condition to make divine offerings, so purification and prayer bring them to a state where they’ll be able to do that again. It should be noted that mourners at the Kriyaputri Bhawan are near Pashupatinath temple—on connected ground (the area is locally referred to as Pashupati) but not inside the temple complex, where mourning would not be conducted. Hindus often try to stay near sacred sites during mourning, but funerals and mourning don’t occur inside temples.
Sleeping: The bereaved don’t stay in their usual beds for mourning but must set aside a separate space, even if they mourn at home. They sleep on the floor in the same position that the body is cremated, with the head to the north and feet to the south. A cotton string is placed atop the bed to mark off the sleeping area as a space where no negative spirits can enter.
Daily Offerings: Each day, a complex series of offerings needs to be given in a prescribed manner. The order, number and direction in which offerings are placed is determined by tradition, but there is always an underlying meaning.
Pinda: Balls of specially prepared rice are placed on leaf plates as gifts, but what they mean each day is different. Traditionally the offerings began as the body was carried from its deathbed, with pinda placed on the bed, at the gateway of the home, on the road, and at the funeral grounds to distract any ghosts or impure spirits as the soul goes on its way. It can also be understood as pleasing to the Deities.
Other pinda are offered daily. On the first day of mourning, the group of pinda includes one divided into four pieces. Two pieces are allocated to the helpers of Yama, lord of the dead, who act as psychopomps and guide the soul on its way; the others are reserved to form and nourish the soul’s new body. From then on, each day with its offering of pinda represents a month the body spends in the womb and corresponds with the formation of a part of the body.
Final Rituals: The extended ceremony that marks both the return of the mourners to ordinary life and the establishment of the deceased among the ancestors is performed on either the 13th day or, if that day would fall on a ritually inappropriate Wednesday or a Sunday, on the 12th day.
As part of the ceremony, the names of ancestors are invoked. Ideally, this includes the names of at least three generations of fathers, but the names of Deities are also invoked to stand in for the ancestors whose names have vanished from memory, far back in time.
The smoke from the sacred fire—not just from this ceremony, but any puja—is also said to free unknown preta whose family may not have conducted the appropriate rites, or who otherwise have had the misfortune to remain in limbo through an unhealthy attachment to this plane of existence. In this sense, performing any type of traditional rites will serve not only the immediate ritual purpose, but also benefit others less fortunate.
Presence of a Cow: A cow is always present on the last day. Its tail is grasped while auspicious water is poured on the tail and the mourners’ hands as the Brahmin recites prayers, and then its tail is handed to the Brahmin as a godaan, or offering of a cow. Historically, cows were donated to the Brahmin who conducted the ceremony; in today’s world, mourners make a monetary donation and the offering of a cow is symbolic.
Touching a cow is also an offer of assistance to the deceased. There are said to be 16 rivers to cross and 16 plains before the spirit can reach the realm of the ancestors. Touching a cow, and specifically its rope-like tail, is a way of invoking safe passage with the guidance of all that the cow symbolizes, including the Goddess Lakshmi and spiritual purity. Conceptually, the notion of a difficult journey full of obstacles that can only be overcome with purity and devotion is symbolic of all the challenges that must be met to find liberation.
Charitable Gifts: As the mourners complete the process, gifts (daan or daanam) are given in the name of the deceased to express their life and personality. If it is a woman, the gifts might include devotional pictures and the types of saris and bangles she liked. A new bed is also given, in part as a wish that the deceased will sleep well in their next life and as an act of generosity to others; piled on the gift bed (shaiya daan) will typically be gifts of pots, pans, and other useful everyday objects. As with other donations in Hinduism, including payments to a Brahmin for puja, a family that can’t afford it can simply give a small symbolic amount of cash or some flowers.
The recipient varies according to tradition and caste. In Nepal, a Chhetri (Kshatriya) family gives the gifts to the Brahmin conducting the ceremony—this is often the family purohit (priest)—while a Brahmin family gives the gifts to a family member with whom the deceased had a respect relationship, such as a son-in-law or the children of one’s sister. It’s believed that souls will feel happy to be remembered fondly whenever the objects are used and to know that their connection with the living will continue even though they’ve passed from the Earth.
After the gifts are given, the soul can join the ancestors contentedly and pass to the next stage of existence, and mourners can share a delicious meal and return to their ordinary lives. The strictest may follow an extended mourning taboo of not eating outside the home for a year and will honor the deceased on death anniversaries, but the time has come for everyone, both the living and the dead, to continue on their journeys.
A Talk with Patron Upendra Mahato
The Kriyaputri Bhawan at Pashupati has become a central part of the mourning process in Kathmandu since it was expanded with the help of a business leader from the diaspora, Upendra Mahato, who lives in Russia. The $450,000 project included the construction of a new building, reconstruction and extension of an old building, and the restoration and expansion of gardens, ponds, temples and water facilities. Work was completed and handed over to the Pashupati Area Development Trust in two phases, in 2005 and 2011, although the trust named for Dr. Mahato’s mother continues to be engaged with maintenance and reconstruction. The author spoke with Dr. Mahato about his involvement.
Q. What inspired you to fund this particular cause?
A: A country cannot prosper sustainably if it ignores the spiritual development of its people. Spirituality is nothing but the deepest values and meanings by which people live. With this realization, the Trust has invested in various projects, including this one, that promote the spiritual development of people.
I saw the plight of people staying for 13 long days to perform mourning rituals in the old Kriyaputri Bhawan after the death of their loved ones. Although the facility lacked basic services, there were long queues and it was crowded. That convinced me to fund the cause. The Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT) has a useful program called Public Participation for the Development (PPD). The Kriyaputri Bhawan, built in two phases, is the result of the cooperation between my Trust, the Phul Kumari Mahato Memorial Trust, and PADT under the PPD program.
Q: What is the importance to you personally of the mourning rituals in Hindu culture?
A: I am not strictly a religious person, but I try to follow rituals as a personal effort to preserve our rich and unique cultural identity. Spirituality is an integral part of our culture. The mourning rituals are a very emotional and personal affair. However, I personally think the ritual needs a serious amendment; it should be less rigorous for the person performing it.
Q: Can you share your thoughts on the role of philanthropy in development?
A: The Phul Kumari Mahato Memorial Trust, established in 2004 in the loving memory of my mother, has an objective to participate in the development of the country through social and charitable works. I strongly believe that those who have resources must contribute towards uplifting the social and economic status of marginalized people and communities. I passionately appeal to my non-resident Nepali friends dispersed all over the world to realize that responsibility and contribute both financially and intellectually for the peace and prosperity of our beloved motherland. If we do it, our foreign friends will follow suit.
This story was first published in Hinduism Today