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Following Hindu tradition, bodies are cremated beside the Bagmati River, Nepal, on May 6, 2015. More than 7,500 people died after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit the region on April 25.

Following Hindu tradition, bodies are cremated beside the Bagmati River, Nepal, on May 6, 2015. More than 7,500 people died after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit the region on April 25. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

Following Hindu tradition, bodies are cremated beside the Bagmati River, Nepal, on May 6, 2015. More than 7,500 people died after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit the region on April 25.

Following Hindu tradition, bodies are cremated beside the Bagmati River, Nepal, on May 6, 2015. More than 7,500 people died after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit the region on April 25. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

A monkey watches as Nepalese conduct funerals beside the Bagmati River below.

A monkey watches as Nepalese conduct funerals beside the Bagmati River below. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

Lions guard the exit to the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, Nepal. The temple, devoted to the Hindu god of living things, can be entered only by those who follow the religion.

Lions guard the exit to the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, Nepal. The temple, devoted to the Hindu god of living things, can be entered only by those who follow the religion. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

Family members carry the body of a deceased relative to the bank of the Bagmati River, Nepal, on May 6, 2015.

Family members carry the body of a deceased relative to the bank of the Bagmati River, Nepal, on May 6, 2015. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

Family and friends gather while the body of a recently deceased man is burned beside the Bagmati River, Nepal. Each day since the devastating earthquake hit the region, families have been making the trip to the river to pay their last respects to loved ones.

Family and friends gather while the body of a recently deceased man is burned beside the Bagmati River, Nepal. Each day since the devastating earthquake hit the region, families have been making the trip to the river to pay their last respects to loved ones. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

The Pashupattinath Temple to Lord Shiva provides a backdrop to funerals beside the Bagmati River, Nepal. Bodies are burned at the river, following Hindu traditions.

The Pashupattinath Temple to Lord Shiva provides a backdrop to funerals beside the Bagmati River, Nepal. Bodies are burned at the river, following Hindu traditions. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

A body is brought to the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, Nepal, for ceremonial washing before cremation.

A body is brought to the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, Nepal, for ceremonial washing before cremation. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

Family members wash the body of a deceased relative in the Bagmati River, Nepal. Afterward, the body will be carried to a pyre and cremated.

Family members wash the body of a deceased relative in the Bagmati River, Nepal. Afterward, the body will be carried to a pyre and cremated. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

A son prepares to set the body of his recently deceased father on fire during a cremation ceremony beside the Bagmati River, Nepal. A Hindu priest covers the body in marigolds, barley, rice, and yellow and red powder before the cremation.

A son prepares to set the body of his recently deceased father on fire during a cremation ceremony beside the Bagmati River, Nepal. A Hindu priest covers the body in marigolds, barley, rice, and yellow and red powder before the cremation. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

A statue representing a monkey god watches over cremations beside the Bagmati River, Nepal.

A statue representing a monkey god watches over cremations beside the Bagmati River, Nepal. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

Only Hindus are allowed inside the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Only Hindus are allowed inside the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of living things, watches over the entrance to the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of living things, watches over the entrance to the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

KATHMANDU, Nepal — Nepalese army Col. Prem Singh Basnyat shaved his head and swapped his military uniform for the white dhoti robe of a son in mourning.

His 75-year-old mother was among the more than 7,500 people killed when a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on April 25. Her body, along with those of 250 other disaster victims, was cremated on the banks of the Bagmati River the day after the earthquake.

“This is the holiest place,” he said Wednesday as he lay on a mat close to where the river passes the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu. “If somebody dies and they are Hindu, their wish is to be cremated here.”

Since the earthquake, bodies have burned each day on the banks of the river as more victims are uncovered. Hindus believe that the deceased should be cremated as soon as possible, while Buddhists, who also cremate their dead by the river, wait several days.

Basnyat’s path brought him to a clearing near the Bagmati, where he has camped alongside others who are grieving. During the traditional 13-day period of mourning, he has prayed daily with his priest, bathed each morning in holy water, and eaten only rice, fruit and a white-pasty substance made from yak milk.

Members of Basnyat’s family are careful not to touch him, something that is prohibited during the mourning period.

In normal times his mother would have been cremated at the junction of two rivers — a holy place for Hindus — near her village in Sindhupalchok District. Her neighbors would each have brought a log for the fire, he said. However, the destruction there was so great that a local cremation wasn’t possible. Basnyat collected his mother’s body in his truck and brought her to the Bagmati’s banks, he said.

As he spoke, relatives arrived with his mother’s possessions: a pile of furniture and things from her kitchen. The possessions will be given to a priest in the belief that they will be passed on to her in her next life, although in reality, the priest will sell them, he said.

Nearby another family carried a deceased loved one to the river to bathe the body. The dead man was then carried to a pyre, where a priest covered him in marigolds, scattered barley, uncooked rice, and yellow and red powder. Loved ones gathered nearby as the victim’s son placed burning yak fat into his father’s mouth to begin the cremation.

In a matter of minutes, the body and a pile of grass and logs were burning. Acrid black smoke rose over the river while a band of noisy monkeys clattered across nearby roofs.

The monkeys, along with dogs, cats, birds, cows and deer, are a common sight near the Pashupatinath, which is devoted to Shiva — the Hindu god of living things. It is thought that a temple stood at the site for 2,400 years, although the building that now stands there dates to the 17th century.

Home to an enormous golden bull statue, the temple can be entered only by Hindus.

On Thursday, his last day of mourning, Basnyat invited 175 friends and family to join him beside the river for a meal.

Ironically, Basnyat was working for the United Nations in Haiti when a massive earthquake struck there in 2010. His leg bears the scars of several surgeries that he needed after jumping from a window at his headquarters in Port-au-Prince when the building collapsed.

“The earthquake is following me,” he said. “This is a very sad time for me.”

robson.seth@stripes.com Twitter: @SethRobson1

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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