For travelers on the Indian subcontinent, mention of burning bodies usually elicits one word: Varanasi. An Indian city that's historically famous as a popular cremation (and death—more on that in a second) for Hindus, modern Varanasi is as much a hot spot for tourists as it is the faithful, owing as much to the mythology of its past and the rawness of its present as its scenic location along the Ganges River.
Varanasi, however, is not the most convenient place to visit, to say nothing of the hassles that often accompany traveling to and within India. If you simply want to see the practice of Hindu cremation in a beautiful, riverside temples, an alternative to Varanasi—a more convenient one, by any measure—is Pashupatinath, located just outside the center of Nepal's capital Kathmandu.
History, Architecture, and Controversy of Pashupatinath
First, it's time to disambiguate. Although the Pashupatinath complex is huge, the main, two-story temple is really where its story begins, at least when you consider buildings that still exist. This structure dates back to the 1600s when Lichhavi King Shupuspa built it to replace an older variant termites were destroying. The temple, whose overall history is believed to go back almost 2,500 years, was named after a deity called Pashupati, a.k.a. Lord of the Pashus. Other important structures on the grounds include the Vasukinath Temple, and Surya Narayan Temple and Hanuman Shrine.
The largest political story in Nepalese history occurred in 2001 when the country's royal family was murdered (by one of their own, no less) and replaced with a Maoist government shortly thereafter. An aftershock of this controversy directly impacted Pashupatinath eight years later, when said government installed Nepalese priests, instead of the Bhatta which had traditionally held this role. Although legal processes eventually saw the re-installation of the Bhatta, the incident nonetheless left a stain on the pride of Pashupatinath.
The Key Difference Between Pashupatinath and Varanasi
Both Nepal's Pashupatinath and India's Varanasi see the practice of cremation, which Hindus practice because they believe it releases the body back into its five "elements," carried out in public. They also both sit on bodies of water and in the middle of relatively large cities.
The chief difference between Varanasi and Pashupatinath is that while Varanasi is a destination where Hindus go not only to be burned but to die, Pashupatinath is simply a place for cremation. Additionally, fewer tourists visit Pashupatinath since it's not as well publicized, although this might seem strange given how much more convenient it is to visit than Varanasi.
How to Visit Pashupatinath
One of the most attractive aspects of Pashupatinath is how close it is to Kathmandu's city center. It sits less than three miles from Thamel, where you're most likely to stay if you visit as a tourist. Alternatively, Pashupatinath sits even closer to Tribhuvan International Airport, so another option for visiting is to do so upon arrival of your flight to Kathmandu but before you go to your hotel. By contrast, Varanasi is several hours by train from any major Indian city, with Delhi and Kolkata being common points of origin for visitors there.
You should be aware that, depending on the time of the day, the journey can take as much as an hour—among other things, Kathmandu is known for its traffic. Pashupatinath is a UNESCO World Heritage site, one that's undergoing reparations due to the 2015 earthquake, and has a relatively steep entrance fee of 1,000 Nepalese rupees, or about $10, as of late 2016.
A good way to make the journey especially worth it, both time- and cost-wise, is to combine it with a trip to nearby Boudhanath Stupa, also known as Boudha. The smoke rising above Pashupatinath looks most stunning amid the orange glow of sunset, so allow darkness to set in there, then head to Boudha just after dark, when the stupa (which was also damaged during the earthquake) lights up in a rainbow of colors.