Under the Spell of Ancient Deities
Two Weeks in the Kathmandu Valley
SEPT. 2007 • TEXT & PHOTOS BY AUSTIN R. PICK
Descending, flying in low, our first glimpse of a land spread luminously green and floridly tufted, a day-glo model layout cupped by dark wedging mountains and peppered with blockish dark-window buildings, blackhole houses scattered like tossed dice and climbing in piles atop the low hills: Kathmandu, Nepal.
It's a first impression that shatters explosively with an almost percussive snap inside our heads as soon as we enter the image itself, catching a cut-rate taxi-ride from the airport and hurling into a mad confusion of rushing muddy streets shot through with motorbikes fuming honking and spinning with all the fury of a smoker striking a wet match, us pinballing among potholes, shouting sellers, heaping garbage, porters and pedestrians, slow sacred cows and sleeping dogs, endless pigeon-hole shops closing in along narrowing lanes, bright billboards mugging toothily over crumble-brick slums, laundry hung like prayer flags and everywhere people, people, people.
Ten minutes into a cheery chat with our tag-team taxi-drivers and we learn that they intend to take us to a "good place" they know, the hotel they work for, rather than our destination. Ever friendly, our young guide intones for the first time what we soon learn is one of Nepal's modern mantras: "Just have a look, looking is free." He then adds, "You can just see for yourself," and I reply, "Yes, my friend, I can see you're a salesman!" Surprised, he rubs his head blushing, and does take us eventually to our destination: Freak Street, in the heart of Kathmandu.
Freak Street is one of the original traveler's haunts, chosen long before the present boom by the hippies of the 1970's, after which the street is also affectionately nicknamed. Most tourists these days stay in Thamel, the sprawling, gaudy backpacker's ghetto in northern Kathmandu, where home and it's comforts never seem too far from reach. It is said —shamelessly quoting the Lonely Planet here— that Nepal has three religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Tourism. Even in quiet friendly Freak Street, we quickly began to feel the truth in this, and were inevitably assailed by beggars, peddlers, tour guides, travel agents and would-be holy men whenever we ventured out to visit Kathmandu's famous sites and tangled markets.
A developing, land-locked, largely mountainous country, tourism is a critical industry in Nepal, and many in the city have come to depend on the misplaced generosity (or coerced emotion— these guys can be pushy) of travelers who glide on the graces of the rupee. We never give to beggars while traveling, but in feeling the engtangled longing of both greedy opportunism and genuine desperation, we try and sharpen our smiles, learning to say no without going broke in our beating chest banks, to give kindness, and be light.
It hasn't always been easy. The veteran travelers we've met always insist that Kathmandu is a relaxed and charming respite from the overbearing crush of India's cities, but as our first introduction to the subscontinent, it's difficult to imagine anyplace more maddeningly chaotic. We arrived at the end of the monsoon season, and the city seems literally beseiged by the natural forces that surround, everything pummelled and slung low by the constant moisture and mud.
And still, Kathmandu proliferates its bizarre admixture of teaming market commerce, sickly-sweet refuse stink and choking pollution in every direction around us. Nepal is predominately Hindu, and for a culture shaped by a religion ostensibly obsessed with purity, I have never experienced a dirtier place. Every holy courtyard seems feces-smattered and riddled with flies, which dance about the rotting offerings and sindur-smeared statues as if in the throes of their own weird, frenetic worship. These are, afterall, monuments to gods of destruction and fecundity.
East of the city, however, around the Great Stupa at Bodhnath, we've found something altogether different: a living Buddhism. Bodhnath is an ancient trade-center along the route between India and Tibet, and following the Chinese invasion of their homeland, the area has become the largest and most openly accepted community of Tibetans-in-exile.
Clean and prosperous, the township around the Great Stupa is alive with Tibetan culture and active Buddhist study. The area is home to scores of monks and nuns in residence at dozens of monasteries, many named after those destroyed by the Chinese in Tibet. During our visit to Bodhnath we sat together and watched as hundreds of local people, many of them so elderly as to appear ancient, gathered to circle the Stupa in a daily practice of walking meditation called kora. The open-heartedness and simple dignity of these people overwhelmed both Shauna and I as they passed us again and again, glowing and grinning, their happiness infectious and overflowing. We were crying then, sitting in the shadow of the stupa...
During another excursion to the ancient palatial Newari town of Bhaktapur, now a sort of living museum east of Kathmandu City, we were graced with a glimpse of what Kathmandu is said to have been like twenty years ago, before the incursion of modern attitudes and machinery. The Newars are the indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley, which has always been a crossroads of intermingling cultures, exchanged by traders and travelers for millennia. Amidst these diverse influences, Newari culture has developed its own characteristic style, a unique synthesis of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs and aesthetics reflected in everything from festivals to fine architecture.
Though still predominant throughout the Valley, perhaps nowhere is traditional Newar style better preserved than at Bhaktapur, where many of the roads are closed to motor traffic and life moves in rhythms more accustomed to the flux of seasons and harvests. This is rather unlike Kathmandu, which bullies on at a manic pace despite monsoons and mud, its medieval streets crammed with the chaos of its crowds. Bhaktapur, by contrast, seems relaxed in a strange sort of time warp, and we found it a pleasure to simply wander the winding narrow lanes, emerging suddenly into markets and public squares where great old pagodas hold their crumbling heads high, wooden roof slates green with monsoon growth, new life.
There are other lovely places in the Valley, such as Patan, another ancient palatial town to the south, and Pashupatinath, a great Hindu temple and place of pilgrimage along the Bagmati river to the east—but our hearts, finally, belong to Bodhnath, which had for us the resonance of a true refuge, a homecoming amidst the strange contingencies of our time in Kathmandu.
We plan on returning to Bodhnath when we finish our next vipassana meditation course, which begins tomorrow. We've been in Kathmandu and surrounds for a nearly two weeks, one full of surprising challenges and a great many blessings too. With the monsoon still shaking its serpent's tail across the land, we've looked through our windows every afternoon to confirm yet again that it's "raining kathmandu," at least an hour of torrential downpour followed by several more of drizzle and gray. We've been forced to spend a lot of time reading in the poor light of our odd-angled guesthouse room, but we're anyways thankful for time to recover from jetlag, and to adapt, sometimes more abruptly than we'd like, to life on the subcontient.
The mind drifts during these monsoon binges, during rains that start as if on a timer and sound like massive turbines at full-throttle. And then the city's constant noise returns with a rush when the rains suddenly end again—children screaming, horns honking, temple bells jangling, cars, construction, the confusion of machines, and, as darkness falls, feral dogs in great packs howling as they emerge to roam the soon-deserted city streets...
Kathmandu is still under the spell of its ancient deities, it seems, and is wrestling with the demons of that precarious frontier where the continuities of the past confront the anxious potentials of modernity's promised future. We are truly a world away, but maybe, even amidst the touristy buzz of Freak Street and the unfiltered grind of Kathmandu's backstreets, still sometimes touching that space we all share—humans, hands, an impassioned planet...
Yours with Love, A