Note: Some of the images below are disturbing.
This year Australian photographer Yani Clarke spent a month documenting life and death at Nepal's Pashupatinath Temple, a site that incinerates more than 40 bodies a day. Despite the constant presence of death and grief, Pashupatinath is hardly somber. Clarke's photos are full of holy men, monkeys, and festivities. But it was still a shock for the photographer, at the age of 21, to engage with death so intimately for the first time.
VICE: Why did you decide to spend this time at the Pashupatinath Temple?
Yani Clarke: I spent a few weeks at Pashupatinath a few years ago when I was helping my mentor Jack Picone run a workshop in Kathmandu. Since then I couldn't stop thinking about it. After leaving I felt a strange sense of guilt for not being there. I came back this year because an electric crematorium is set to be opening in a few months . When the cremation facility opens, the practice will significantly cease.
It was your first close encounter with death—was that an eye-opening experience for you?
I remember the first body I saw, I remember the smell of the flesh, my mind just slowed down. Throughout the next few weeks I slowly stopped becoming affected by what I saw, and that feeling became normal.
Can you tell me about the holy men in your photos?
There are a lot of fake holy men at the temple who are basically there to make some cash and chill out. They spend their days hanging out in the sun, getting high smoking chillums, and having their photo taken with tourists. I have strong reservations about paying for photographs because making an image of someone shouldn't involve a financial transaction; it kind of defeats the whole purpose. These holy men, holy or not, are really nice guys, and a few of them even added me on Facebook.
Women are banned from a lot of the gatherings you shot. How did you get around that?
It has so much to do with how you react—they test you. As soon I walked into the crowd of about a hundred men, one of the naked holy men came right up to me and put his penis on my lens. I shot it and laughed along with everyone else, then went and sat down with the other naked men. For hours they kept testing me. After they realized they couldn't scare me off, they stopped noticing my presence.
What was the ritual that most impacted you?
It was a Buddhist cremation right before I left. The body was wrapped in orange silk shrouds and covered in orange marigolds. In Buddhism it's the daughter who has to light the body on fire. So I was only meters away from this young girl who was about my age, and she had to light her mother on fire and she was weeping. At about this time a woman I'd never met before came over and started hugging me. We both watched the whole cremation, which was incredibly graphic. Something had happened to this woman, it was like her spine was coming out through her sternum, her body had noticeably started to decay, because in Buddhism they purify the body for four days; when they removed the silk shrouds and plastic wrapping, one of her arms almost fell off.
Do you think these experiences have affected how you feel about death?
When you don't see death in your day-to-day life, you kind of feel like it's something that happens to others. Death and dying is locked up; we don't even speak about it. You've caught me at an interesting point because last night I found out that I've lost a friend back home in a car accident. Life is so fleeting, and it's different when someone close to you dies.
Seeing so much death has left me feeling quite reverential about my surroundings. More than anything, I feel an urgency to do exactly what I want to do in my life, to be honest and open in all my interactions and let go of my attachment to material things. Everything is impermanent, and there is nothing really wrong with death at all. Only how we look at it is wrong.
Interviewed by Laura Rodriguez Castro. Follow her on Twitter.