On the eastern edge of central Kathmandu lies Pashupatinath Temple—one of the holiest Hindu sites in the world. We’re sitting nearby on the left bank of the Bagmati River, the side reserved for non-Hindus. Our host, Govinda Awale, brought us here to experience the open-air cremations that take place day and night along the river in Nepal’s capital. We watch as the temple staff stack wood at one of the half-dozen funeral pyres that line the stone walkway. Behind us, men recline along a wall—they’re sadhus, religious ascetics who’ve given up worldly possessions in search of enlightenment. I take one look at their face paint and saffron-colored robes and think, That’s straight out of National Geographic. It’s how I feel about this whole scene—entirely foreign, something I’ve only witnessed in magazines.
Across the river, a funeral procession forms as worshippers file out of the temple complex and along the edge of the water. Further down, two bodies still burn, their families long gone. Hindus at the end of their life come from afar to Pashupatinath, believing that if they die here they are instantly rewarded with a human reincarnation. The funeral procession we watch follows a group of men carrying a body wrapped in white and orange linen to the next open pyre. It’s already hard to witness such an intimate event as a public cremation, but my insides tremble at the sound of the wailing. It’s not the kind of mourning we see back in the U.S.—there’s something so raw about what we’re hearing in this moment. It’s unnerving.
Of the men carrying the body, one is the most visibly upset, shaking with little control. He stumbles around the deceased, now on the pyre. And though we’re quite a distance away, it’s clear that the body is small. Govinda gathers from the setting that it’s a father saying goodbye to his son. Circling several times, the father needs help to stay on his feet; two men prop his arms as he, hands shaking, lights the wood below.
Govinda tells us that many Nepali Christians also cremate their loved ones, just without the Hindu traditions. Because of government regulations that favor the Hindu practice of cremation, they have difficulty finding space for burial. Christianity is relatively new to Nepal. In the roughly five decades since this closed-off kingdom opened itself to outsiders, Nepal has seen its Christian population grow by more than 10 percent. That’s faster than anywhere else in the world, and one could argue the rapid growth has caught officials off guard.
Christians like Govinda long to find ways to honor the government without compromising their faith in Jesus. It’s an odd situation: Christianity is technically legal, but proselytizing is not. You can be a Christian, but you’re not supposed to tell others about Jesus. That’s proven to be a difficult law for the government to enforce, and Nepali Christians can’t in good faith follow it given the call of Matthew 28:19 to “make disciples of all the nations.” But the local church tries its best to honor the government set above them. Because the baptism of children is forbidden, Nepali Christians will wait until young believers turn 18 to baptize them.
In my time with Govinda, it’s clear that he desperately desires to follow the will of the Lord as well as obey the authorities God has put in place. And he’s proud of his heritage, regardless of its deep ties to Hinduism. During our trip, he takes us to several historical places, most of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites, like Pashupatinath. Some of them were damaged in a massive earthquake in 2015, possibly never to be fully restored. It weighs on him, not because of their importance to Hinduism, but because it’s part of his Nepali heritage.
The day before our visit to the cremation site, we experienced a Nepali Christian worship service at Koinonia Patan, Govinda’s home church. He told me the congregation numbered somewhere between 800 and 900 people; I quietly doubted it until I saw the first service of the day. Throngs of people filled the three-story building, coming to worship the one true God. In their songs, in their communal prayers, I felt a newness to it all—compared to the history of Christianity elsewhere, this is a church in its formative years. This is the kind of church Paul would have written a letter to: a young body of believers learning what it means to walk in a strange new faith.
I think of that father mourning the loss of his son, hoping that his boy will be reincarnated as a human. That rawness of mourning strikes me as an outward expression of the inward need for someone to come along and destroy death once and for all. Praise God that Someone has come. And He is moving among the people of Nepal, bringing light and life where hopelessness has reigned for thousands of years. In my prayers for that father to find the peace of Jesus Christ, I rest knowing the Nepali church is a city on a hill, lit with the flames of the Spirit of God.
Photography by Ben Rollins