Nepal’s most important Hindu temple stands on the banks of the holy Bagmati River, surrounded by a bustling market of religious stalls selling marigolds, prasad (offerings), incense, rudraksha beads, conch shells, pictures of Hindu deities and temples, tika powder in rainbow colours, glass lingams, models of Mt Meru and other essential religious paraphernalia.
At first glance, Pashupatinath might not look that sacred – the temple is just a few hundred metres from the end of the runway at Tribhuvan Airport, overlooking a particularly polluted stretch of the Bagmati. However, in religious terms, this is a powerhouse of Hindu spiritual power. Elsewhere in Nepal, Shiva is worshipped in his wrathful form as the destructive Bhairab, but at Pashupatinath he is celebrated as Pashupati, Lord of the Beasts.
Sadhus and devotees of Shiva flock to Pashupatinath from across the subcontinent and many Nepalis choose to be cremated on the banks of the holy river. Even the kings of Nepal used to come here to ask for a blessing from Pashupati before commencing any important journey. Nepal’s Dalit (‘untouchable’) community was only allowed access to the shrine in 2001.
Non-Hindus cannot enter the main temple, but the surrounding complex of Shaivite shrines, lingams and ghats (stone steps) is fascinating and highly photogenic. Groups of ‘photo me’ sadhus loiter around in outlandish paraphernalia hoping to make a little money posing for tourist photos. Be respectful with your camera at the funeral ghats – you wouldn’t take snaps of bereaved relatives at a funeral back home, so don’t do it here.
You can visit Pashupatinath as a half-day trip from central Kathmandu and walk on easily to Bodhnath. There are ticket booths near the southern entrance to the main Pashupatinath temple and next to the Guhyeshwari Temple, where foreigners must pay the entrance fee. Guides can be hired from the office of the Guide Association of Pashupatinath close to the main temple.
The best times to visit are early in the morning or around 6pm during evening prayers.