This time the sound of the instruments indicated that there was some procession in the Buddhist tradition.
A long white ribbon supported by those walking in the procession indicated the nature of the event: the funeral procession – After-death ritual of Tamangs.
The procession was led by two Tibetan lamas from the Nyingma tradition of the Tamang caste with shimmering copper trumpets. Behind them was a lama with a drum, and then one of the most important lamas in this ritual, Sonam Lama, who led the procession of the white ribbon.
Traditions maintained in Nepali societies intertwine each other. This nation creates a perfectly harmonious mix of different cultures, the traditions of which are mutually “borrowed”.
The Gurung also adhere to Tibetan Buddhism, but the ritual of the white ribbon continues in their culture for a long time, even before the days of arriving Buddha’s teachings to the Gurung community. The white ribbon symbolizes the path that the deceased should follow and is a very important element of the ritual, as a guarantee that he will not lose the right path.
The beginning of the ribbon was tied to the lama’s mala so that this symbol of Buddhist practice would guide the deceased. On the same hand, he also kept the bell, which he rang all the time, so that the soul, usually lost among the intense impressions of the state of the Bardo crossing, did not lose his way. In the other hand, Sonam the lama held Dorje as a reminder to the deceased and supporting him on the path of relatives about the necessity of maintaining mental discipline.
The ribbon was supported by three sons of the deceased and other mourners. It ended with a litter adorned with colorful khata – silk scarves serving the blessing or worship. What the litter contained I don’t know.
From one of the participants in the procession – a relative of the deceased – I learned that we are going to the Jambudhanath hill, where the cremation will take place.
We crossed the main artery of the city, Boudha Nagar street, where the Great Stupa Boudanath stands and we entered a settlement located on the bend of the Bagmati river, above the Pasupatinath temple. The way lasted about thirty minutes and the llamas played from time to time. For the Nepalese people living in the area, the event was certainly not new, but it attracted the attention of many onlookers.
We finally got through various obstacles and monsoon mud to Jambudhanath. A gate led to the hill with the name of the place: Sree Tinchuli Tamang Bhaju Guthi. The approach was not long, one and a half minutes and we were upstairs. There was a small stupa on the top, and two cremation rooms next to it. Next to each were roofed places, where lamas spread out mats, texts, offerings, and all ritual accessories.
The dead were two – a man threatened by his family in the Tamang ritual and a woman from the Sherpa tradition. The lamas say that the rituals of both traditions are the same. However, the Sherpas’ puja lasted only an hour and the fire burned out in the company of just a few relatives.
Puja’s tradition of Tamang lasted longer – Sonam Lama, together with several other lamas, read various texts with breaks for drinks and conversations.
It seems justified: although both these communities are not rich, the Tamangs are in Kathmandu a better-organized community from the Sherps, who are still a bit less here, which translates into financial possibilities: lamas need to be paid.
The urn that we carried in the procession was probably more symbolic – it was only a cage of bamboo sticks wrapped in a colorful khata, which were then hung around the cremation site. The cage itself was placed on the side of the entire cremation complex – it was no longer needed.
At the beginning of the ritual, before making the fire, were brought bodies in white and colored khata. They were placed on marble tables standing next to cremation places. There were also more and more ritual sacrifices: fruits, cookies, two-liter bottles of carbonated beverages, bottles of rakshi – Nepalese moonshine – and tormas, ritual forms made of dough for the occasion of sacrificial pujas.
Meanwhile, on the side where two men took to flare up the fire, and then laid under the funeral pyre. The bodies were already placed on piles, and relatives and other participants watered ghee for a good kindling and sprinkled sugar.
It is known that to preserve the purity of the ritual, only natural materials such as ghee are used. Under no circumstances is petrol or the oil lamp popular in Nepal. Vegetable oils, however, are many types and it is certainly easy to get a clean and cheaper substitute …. they, however, just use ghee, or purified butter, which is more expensive than the usual butter known to us. The literal or even larger ghee sachets are sold widely in all kinds of commercial outlets in Nepal and – as it turned out – they serve just for cremation rituals. As the Lamas told me later, this is not such a good story, because every guest of the farewell funeral brings a ghee bag, and the families are big in Nepal.
Apart from ghee, sugar falls into a generous hand for cremation fires. Sugar burns well, but the most important thing for the deceased’s family is to sweeten him to the difficult path to the land of Bardo.
The posthumous ritual is very important in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, just as it is important to maintain proper relationships with the family, especially with the ancestors. Thus, the successful passage of the deceased across the border is a key moment for the whole family. It is believed that failure in this undertaking can affect the lives of all people involved in the ritual. This is the role of Nyingm’s lamas as those who know and understand the posthumous world – called in the Bardo Buddhist tradition.
There were many piles of wood. Despite the ongoing monsoon season, the Tamangs organized thick, well-dried logs. After a few hours of smoking bonfires and tasting carbonated drinks to the company with the specific aroma of smoked meat, it turned out that the bodies burned completely, and only the skull of the man could be seen on the pile. I did not find the remains of the female body in bright flames at all.
In the meantime, during the cremation, three sons of the deceased took the blessing on Sonam Lama several times, and then the ritual of shaving their heads began. The sons of the deceased in Nepal dress in white – which is the color of mourning – and shave their heads during the funeral.
The tradition of white and shaving heads applies here in all cultures. In general, looking at the traditions of Shivaits, Hindus, and Buddhists – they are not so different from each other. In the West, it seems to us that Hinduism and Buddhism are two different religions, but this is only a rigid concept that has nothing to do with reality.
As the members of all these communities say – the inhabitants of the estate are a common sangha, one of the three pillars of the state called Buddhism in the Enlightenment. We can easily notice, therefore, how traditions are intertwined and sacred rations defined by us into rigid conceptions and various kinds of systems, here they come down to a common point of view called by many OMs, that is, consciousness.
At the end of the ritual, the daughter of the deceased and the two youngest granddaughters consulted Sonam Lama about the necessary rituals in the following days to ensure that the deceased had a proper journey through the difficult road. Rituals in the house of the deceased are celebrated daily for a week, and then the next puja is celebrated on the twenty-first day after death. On the forty-ninth day, the final puja is celebrated – this is the moment when the deceased’s mind has already reached stability finding a new place in the universe. The last puja – when, according to Buddhist beliefs, the soul of the deceased is already in its new body – is celebrated a year later.
So the family arranged with the lama an hour of daily rituals at home from the next day. The Lama was to take part in it as a guide because ordinary civilians – although they know the basics of Buddhist cosmology and can recite the basic mantras – do not have a great orientation moving in the rites necessary for the dead.
At the end of the ceremony, the family organized and distributed money. The bills were packed in envelopes and wrapped in a white katha and then handed over to the lama with a nod.
When everything was at hand, and the bonfire had only the gray shape of the skull, the llamas gathered their equipment and headed back to our Ramhiti estate, taking me under their protective wings. As I was interested in the details of further rituals, I was invited to the pujas the next day in the deceased’s family home.