Wonders of the Universe: Shaivites Rule

Last night I sat down in front of the box to watch an eager and boyish British scientist explain the origins of the universe in just four episodes. I confess I was mainly watching because I had caught a glimpse in the trailers of Pashupatinath, the great Hindu pilgrimage and cremation site outside Kathmandu where I had recently spent a few hours.

Cremation at Pashupatinath

Cremation at Pashupatinath

Pashupatinath is sacred to Nepalese Hindus, above all the Shaivite believers who revere Shiva as the Supreme Being; the creator, preserver and destroyer. Nepalese come here to cremate their dead on the banks of the sacred Bagmati river. Visitors watch from across that foul ditch as bodies wrapped in marigold cloth are laid on the pyres. The mourners gather around, some visibly distraught, as the pyre is lit. When only ashes remain, they are swept into the river.

What could this eerie place – haunted by outrageously-garbed sadhus, cadging shamelessly – and its bizarre rituals possibly have to do with the origins of the galaxies around us? As it happens, plenty.

Dr Brian Cox came here to make the point that the Hindu doctrine of endless creation and destruction, death and rebirth, is an apt metaphor for today’s scientific thinking about the constant change in the universe itself. What’s more, he followed my footsteps to Nagarkot, on the rim of the Kathmandu Valley, to catch the views of the Himalaya so he could demonstrate that the creation of the world’s highest mountains is part of the same process. Along the way we journeyed from a derelict prison in Rio de Janeiro to the dying red star Betelgeuse. Whew! The Beeb does science well, I must admit.

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