unforgettable, in every way
I’ve started setting aside the stuff I plan to bring to New Zealand and felt a pang of nostalgia when I fished out this shawl, which I bought in Nepal six years ago. I have great memories with this shawl – it’s not very light but it is very soft, very warm, and putting it on was like a warm hug as I shivered through freezing rain and fog in Europe in 2007, on my grand graduation tour.
I first caught sight of the shawl when I was trudging back to my hostel on Patan Square after another hot, dusty day in Kathmandu. I remember being attracted by the bright squares of colour, but also by the dark blue on the reverse, which looks almost like indigo denim. I remember sitting on a stool in a tiny shop while the proprietor pulled out scarf after scarf to entice me, sipping on a tiny cup of hot greasy tea (it’s the yak butter), and most of all, I remember him loosening a thread from the shawl, setting it on fire, and waving the smoke under my nose. “SMELL THAT?” he boomed. “SMELLS LIKE BURNING HAIR? THAT MEANS IT’S REAL WOOL. NO VISCOSE.”
I ventured one of those “everything is made in China these days” jokes, which earned me a disapproving wag of his finger. “NOT MINE. MY PATTERNS ARE SPECIAL AND MY WEAVERS ARE (I can’t actually remember what he said).” When I added that I didn’t know what burning human hair smelled like, he plucked one off my head, ignored my yelp, and set it on fire as well. “SMELL THAT? NOW YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN?” he said, smiling smugly.
In any case, I had already decided I wanted one of these squares of colour for myself. We haggled until we were convinced neither of us were getting a good deal, I handed over my money, we shook hands, and I left with two shawls – one for me and one for my mum.
A few days later, I went to Pashupatinath, a temple which sits on the banks of the Bagmati river, and is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus.
What I hadn’t realised then was that cremations are also held there. I was enlightened not because I saw the cremations first, but because I caught a familiar smell in the air as my friends and I walked closer to the river. That’s burning hair, I told them.
How did I know, they asked.
A man at a pashmina shop told me. He burned a strand of my hair, I said.
So we're smelling burning hair because…oh.
We went closer and watched the cremations, which are held in open air by the river, in accordance to Hindu beliefs.
Years on, I often wonder whether there's real similarity between burning goat hair and human hair, and whether my mind was playing tricks on me at Pashupatinath. One way or another, it makes for a good story.
I'll rustle up a few pictures of Pashupatinath, and other places in Kathmandu one of these days. I can't believe it's been six years!