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Nepal and India — Pashupatinath temple and the religious connect

Nepal and India — Pashupatinath temple and the religious connect

The beautiful Himalayan nation of Nepal enjoys the unique reputation of being a land of mystical powers and adventure tourism. For several Indians, the deep-rooted spiritual relevance of the city of Kathmandu, where the famous temple of Pashupatinath is located, also remains the main attraction. The temple, situated along the Bagmati river in the capital, undoubtedly forms the core of the religious tourism circuit popular with Indian tourists and remains an essential connect between India and Nepal at the people-to-people level.

The quaint and pristine temple structure of Pashupatinath, which is somewhat diminutive in its frame as compared to what one would imagine given its fame and reputation, is marked by beautiful pagoda style roofing reflective of the confluence of Buddhist and Hindu architecture, typically seen in different parts of Nepal. While the exact date of Pashupatinath’s construction is not known, it is considered to be the oldest Hindu temple in Kathmandu with the earliest evidence of its existence dating back to 400 BC.

The temple has a special relevance for the people of Nepal as there is a strong underlying belief that in the face of some of the most difficult and challenging times, it is the blessings of Pashupatinathji that has held the nation and people together preventing any crisis from occurring.

In Kathmandu, one can find temples dedicated to various Hindu deities spread across the city including at street corners and in the several lanes and bylanes. Living in Nepal one realises that although Hinduism as practiced in Nepal is similar in many ways to that in India, several unique and important aspects characterize Nepali Hinduism.

Throughout the year, one finds a wide variety of Hindu religious ceremonies being held with fanfare, many of which are not celebrated in India today. The concept of reverence to the nature and all living beings as part of Hindu philosophy is more visible in Nepal than anywhere else.

<img class="wp-image-27801 size-large" src="https://indianarrative.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/PM-Narendra-Modi-at-Nepals-Pashupatinath-Temple-in-Kathmandu-1024×683.jpg" alt="Modi in Nepal" width="1024" height="683" /> Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal on May 12, 2018 (PIB)

Pashupatinath temple remains the centre of reverence and a holy place for Hindu pilgrims from all across since time immemorial. The temple is closely associated with the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple which is considered one of the twelve <em>Jyotirlingas</em> – the holiest of Shiva temples. The Pashupatinath temple is considered to be the “head” of Lord Shiva whereas Kashi Viswanath temple is considered to be the “headless body” of Lord Shiva. Thus, the true vision of the divine Lord Shiva is considered incomplete without worshipping at both the temples.

Furthermore, according to Holy Scriptures, there are four <em>Prasidha Dhams</em> located in all four cardinal directions, that is Rameshwar Temple in the south, Dwarkadhish Temple in the west, Badrinath Temple in the north and Jagannath Temple in the east, which are all located in India. However, the spiritual liberation of Hindu devotees is considered incomplete without visiting Kashi Vishwanath Temple and Pashupatinath Temple, even after visiting the four Dhams.

An important India connect with the temple is the fact that daily rituals at Pashupatinath are carried out by priests from Karnataka who are selected from a group of scholars. They usually undergo rigorous training in Rig Vedic recitation and other ritualised practices in different temples in India before being selected as priests at Pashupatinath through a strict examination on Vedas and Shiva <em>Agamas</em>. This has been a tradition practiced over the years keeping in line with the Shaivite norms.

As one heads towards the Pashupatinath temple premises one can see a complex web of countless smaller temples and shrines constructed around the main temple on both banks of the Bagmati river. These smaller temples, sculptures, shrines and images numbering more than 500, have been constructed over the last several centuries in different eras and hence dawn varying architectural styles. On the street leading upto the temple and marked by shops selling prayer items, one can hear chatter in several Indian languages by visiting Indian tourists.

<img class="wp-image-27802 size-large" src="https://indianarrative.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Pashupatinath-Temple-in-Kathmandu-Nepal-1024×723.jpg" alt="Pashupatinath Temple" width="1024" height="723" /> A woman lights butter lamp while offering prayers on Shrawan Somvar at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal (Xinhua/Sunil Sharma/IANS)

Likewise, as one enters the temple premises, besides the local visitors, one is overwhelmed with visitors from different corners of India all converging at this revered place of Hindu worship thousands of miles away from their homes.

The biggest of the celebrations held at the Pashupatinath temple is during Shivratri when more than a million people visit the temple from different parts of Nepal, India and other countries. The temple adorns a celebrative mood on this day with large number of s<em>aadhus</em> (sages) from different parts of Nepal and India congregating at the temple. Around 7000 saadhus of various clans attended the ceremony in 2019. Besides prayers and devotion, <em>saadhus</em> can be seen adorning unique appearances within the premises of the temple and around.

Through a highly organised system, the temple authorities cater for accommodation and meals for the visiting <em>saadhus</em>. As such, the Mahashivratri celebrations at Pashupatinath is an event that sees the confluence of religion, culture and spirituality in a unique manner.

On a usual day, besides the regular <em>pooja</em> (prayer) at the main temple, there is also an evening <em>aarti</em> (ritual of worship) held along the Bagmati river across the main Pashupatinath complex. Priests performing the <em>aarti</em> hold oil lamps moving them in a circular motion dedicating their act to the divine in the backdrop of soothing <em>bhajans</em> (devotional songs) sung by dovotees creating a blissful surrounding. Simultaneously, a dance form called the <em>Tandav</em> associated with Lord Shiva is performed by followers at the <em>aarti</em>.

The Bagmati also has a cremation place alongside the temple premises where cremation is held on a regular basis and devotees to the temple are allowed to view the proceedings from a distance if they so desire. There is something uniquely peaceful about the place despite the morbid overtones, making one return with a perspective on the cycle of life.

<img class="wp-image-27807 size-large" src="https://indianarrative.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/b7f3e21443d9447dcfbb52247e07e73b-1024×683.jpg" alt="Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu" width="1024" height="683" /> Priests performing an aarti on the banks of Bagmati river opposite Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu (IANS)

The pivotal role that Pashupatinath plays in the Hindu religion and the strong spiritual sentiments attached to the temple are evident from the fact that besides the regular local visitors to the temple, on an average close to 2000 to 3000 people from India visit Pashupatinath temple each day. The temple receives huge donations and contributions from the visitors in the form of offerings which includes cash and other forms of donation.

As per temple authorities, on special occasions, the collection from Indian visitors is often in the range of four to five million Nepali Rupees a day. There is a massive religious tourism infrastructure that has come into existence in Kathmandu around the Pashupatinath temple with hotels and tour agencies catering to the requirements of the Indian tourists.

During his visit to Nepal in the year 2014, PM Modi visited the temple and donated 2,500 kilograms of white sandalwood and later during his visit in 2018, PM Modi donated a 400-bed dharamshala (a rest house for travellers) constructed with Indian assistance to the Pashupatinath Mandir Trust. The Indian government continues to support the temple in every way possible and an MoU was signed between the two countries in June 2020 wherein India pledged to construct a Rs 2.33 crore sanitation facility at the temple complex to improve the infrastructure in the holy shrine for visiting pilgrims.

This unique association between the people of India and Nepal based on Hindu religious values and practices as also culture and tradition becomes glaringly evident during festivals such as Dashain/Dussehra, Teej, Tihar/Diwali, Holi etc. Being in Nepal, one certainly feels religiously and spiritually more enlightened during the various Hindu religious celebrations.

As Nepal goes through a difficult phase dealing with the Covid crisis which has severely hit the tourism sector, it is this interwoven religious network binding Nepal with India which could bring benefits to Nepal once the temples are opened to Indian visitors.

Tourism experts in Nepal feel that while foreign tourists, including trekkers, mountaineers and holiday makers might take some time to begin visiting Nepal, it is the Indian religious tourists who can significantly bail out the tourism industry as part of religious tourism. The close proximity and easy access from India remains a strong point and efforts are on by the Government of Nepal to look at welcoming Indian tourists on the Hindu tourist circuit. The zeal and enthusiasm among Nepali tour operators to welcome Indian tourists is evident from the fact that some of them have already started promoting tour plans for the March 2021 Maha Shivratri at the Pashupatinath besides other attractions.

<em>(Radhika Halder is an analyst at MitKat Advisory Services Pvt. Ltd. She has worked in India and Nepal, focusing on issues related to global security, international relations and South Asian regional security and politics)</em>.