Nepal's earthquake survivors are struggling to mourn the dead

One Hindu temple has become a nexus of sorrow


Former Verge reporter Greg Sandoval has been traveling the world, most recently spending several weeks in Nepal. This is his firsthand account of the enormous tragedy locals face after the devastating earthquake on April 25th.

Pashupatinath Temple is a place connected to death and mourning in ways that are unlike anything in the Western world.

Hindus have for years traveled to Pashupatinath to place their loved ones on funeral pyres and grieve in front of tourists and onlookers, a spectacle that couldn’t be any different from a funeral in the United States. The temple complex straddles both banks of the Bagmati River near the center of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. On one of its banks are the stone platforms where the funeral pyres burn; on the other is a viewing area.

The 1,500-year-old temple complex is sacred to Nepal’s 23 million Hindus. It is one of the world’s best-known sites for cremations, performing them along the banks of the river. Now, as the death toll from Nepal’s earthquake continues to climb — estimated now to be near 5,000 — the temple is struggling to keep up with the surging number of bodies coming in.

A boy looks out at the Bagmati River while the body of his mother is cremated on the grounds of the Pashupatinath Temple, a sacred Hindu site. (Greg Sandoval)

As of Monday, Pashupatinath’s staff had performed 286 cremations since Saturday’s quake, and many more are scheduled, according to a report in The Washington Post. Because so many of the dead and bereaved are arriving at the temple from around the country, Pashupatinath has become a place where the enormity of the nation’s suffering and sense of loss is concentrated and in full public view.

I’ve been traveling in Nepal as a tourist for more than a month. I first visited Pashupatinath in early April; during a second visit Tuesday, I noticed dramatic differences. On the first tour, I saw three cremations started over a period of 90 minutes, while onlookers snapped pictures from the viewing area and children played on the hills above. On Tuesday, I saw only anguish: all the platforms held burning bodies as dozens of women sobbed. Some were trying to hold a crying woman upright. Nearby, corpses swaddled in white cloth lie on the ground. Some people were even stacking wood to build their own fires downriver.

"We don’t know what to say about the world," said Harikrishna Thakuri, 31. "We don’t know why God is cheating us, all the bad things happening in Nepal now."

Thakuri spoke as he stood just a few feet from where the body of Laxmi Thakuri, his aunt, was being consumed by flames. Laxmi, a housekeeper, was killed in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square area after being struck by falling debris on her way to work. Harikrishna says his aunt had departed the home of relatives only 10 minutes before the earthquake hit. On the viewing side of the river, I noticed a large crowd had gathered. When I crossed to take a look, I saw people trying to comprehend a cruel equation: one family, six bodies.

The body of an earthquake victim is brought to Pashupatinath Temple for cremation. (Greg Sandoval)

The bodies were lying side by side, covered by flower petals strung together. One of the victims' sons rested his forehead at the feet of his father. Even for a people who are familiar with civil war and have seen entire villages swept away in landslides and avalanches, the sight of a family's tragedy is overwhelming. Many weep.

The six victims died when the earthquake toppled the 200-foot Dharahara Tower, among Kathmandu’s biggest tourist draws, according to Mohan Limbu, 30, one of the victims’ relatives. The tower has become a media symbol for the disaster.

Among the dead was Limbu’s 23-year-old female cousin and an aunt and uncle who were both in their early 40s, he said. In a tragic twist, while the world was glued to TV video of the destroyed tower, Limbu and his surviving family members had no idea that the six were there. "They went sightseeing, but we didn’t know where," said Limbu, a teacher. "We called and called each of them, but nobody answered. Someone picked up on Sunday, but it was a policeman."

"We called and called each of them, but nobody answered."

I couldn’t help noticing that the bodies of the six victims seemed to be carefully prepared for cremation, but many others were not. During my first Pashupatinath tour, all three men were neatly covered; great care was spent on their religious rites. On Tuesday, limbs stuck out from under pyre logs. Flies swarmed. I saw trucks driving into one of the complex’s side entrances with bodies loaded on the roof. I wondered if these sorts of images were hard on relatives.

And the work is far from done: four days after the quake, Nepal’s government has yet to recover corpses still buried in the rubble of collapsed buildings.

A body burns on a funeral pyre at Pashupatinath Temple. The number of cremations at the temple has spiked since Saturday's devastating earthquake. (Greg Sandoval)

On Tuesday, I had to gird myself while watching the cremation of 15-year-old Milan Bhandari, who had dreams of becoming a doctor but was killed when his family home collapsed, according to relatives. It was hard to speak or make eye contact with the sons of Laxmi Thakuri, the woman who died in Durbar Square, while their mother’s body burned just a few feet away. The face of one of the boys appeared tear-stained; the expression on his face made me think he might be scared and confused. I wondered how many other of Nepal’s children were at the same moment trying to understand the concept of death.

Fortunately, there are signs now that the government is moving in the right direction. One of the most encouraging developments came Tuesday night when the power returned. On Wednesday, the sound of merchants lifting metal shutters from their storefronts woke me up. People began shoveling debris.

That’s when I remembered that the Nepalese are famous for their ability to endure. The Sherpa, the ethnic group from Nepal’s Himalayas region, are some of the world’s most famous mountaineers, celebrated for shouldering heavy loads as they scale the world’s highest peaks. Then there’s the Gurkhas, the legendary soldiers from Nepal’s hill tribes known for their stamina, discipline, and bravery. An Indian general once said: "If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or a Gurkha."

That’s good, because it’s going to require a lot of strength to get past the horrors that Nepal has endured in the last four days — and the hardships that are likely still ahead.

Correction: This post initially mis-spelled "Durbar Square" as "Dunbar Square."