BHAKTIPUR: DREAMING IN THE DUST
On our last trip to Nepal, in June of 1974, we drove in from India over truly terrible roads with our first stop being the lakeside town of Pokhara. This time was far less exhausting, we few from Ahmedabad to Delhi, transferred terminals and flew on to Kathmandu.
Arriving in Kathmandu airport was a casual affair. Since foreigners have to purchase visas on arrival, we expected chaos and long line ups but we have experienced far worse. They even had machines to enter the copious details required and to take your photo.
We had decided to start our Nepali sojourn in the historic city of Bhaktipur on the outskirts of Kathmandu, though now what were separate towns have kind of melded into Kathmandu proper as the city has sprawled immensely. The dust and pollution around the airport is terrible, and many people wear face masks as they walk or ride motor bikes. The drive to Bhaktipur took us past an area of brick making, the smoking brick kilns contributing to the insalubrious air quality. The reason for all these bricks rapidly became clear as rebuilding after the earthquake of April, 2015 is in full swing everywhere.
We were absolutely charmed by Bhaktipur, once we entered the old city having paid our $15US entry fee each for 1 week, the money going to reconstruction of the ancient religious sites damaged by the earthquake. First stop the Peacock Guesthouse, a 700 year old Newari house. Newars are the dominant caste group in these parts, there being 5 main groups in Nepal.
Well the Newaris were a short race, back in the day, maximum 5’5″ tall judging from the doorways and indeed the ceilings of our room. Run by a cheerful couple, Arun and Indra and their charming 2 and 5 year old children, the atmosphere was true guesthouse. We entered stooped over through a narrow, heavily carved doorway and found ourselves in a wood carving workshop where they still make the impossibly intricate windows, doors, and wall decorations that adorn the brick Newari buildings. Proceeding around the seated men tapping away with wood chisels, we found ourselves in a central courtyard with small tables and to the side, their “Himalayan Bakery” with a case full of gorgeous looking cakes and muffins, plus a great round of cheese!! Seeing the cheese, I was overcome with longing and asked if I could have a slice of it — “Why don’t we make you a cheese sandwich?” And immediately out came a gorgeous toasted sandwich, thick brown bread, delicious sharp cow cheese, and ripe flavoursome tomatoes. Ambrosia! Plus a cold beer to wash it down…
Our room was very cutely appointed but oh so low, however we adjusted with one head bang each — it was amusing to hear bumps and then foreigners groaning or cursing — we were not the only klutzy ones. We had such a nice time there, lots of interesting people to talk to, some of them working on various aid projects so regular visitors to Nepal. Sitting around in the evening chatting and drinking Italian wine (!) was a nice change from our solitary splendour in Gujarat.
We arrived, unbeknownst to ourselves, on the eve of Shiva Raatri, occasion for a national holiday. It just so happened that the square outside our door held a famous Shiva temple. Somnath is a Shiva temple and faithful readers may recall the fire and light required for pujas to Shiva. Bonfires were lit all around the town, the temple was decorated with hundreds and hundreds of tiny butter lamps, and devotees lined up across the square all through the evening to make their pujas at the shrine.
Our house held a small but important shrine to Shiva on the ground level, opened only once a year on this day. Indra warned all of us to shutter our windows tightly as “the smoke will come up”. We saw what she was talking about as we looked out our window into the courtyard below (these houses were originally all interconnected and used by large extended families) and saw a little man kindling a very large bonfire right under the guests’ windows! The two little kids were out there too with miniature temple drums to bong, and the wood shavings and scraps from the workshop soon had quite the conflagration going. Shiva was dressed in new clothes for the occasion, and people lined up in the street outside to peer through an opening into the shrine with the bonfire merrily crackling behind. When we went outside to peer in through the window in our basement, everyone tried to tell us how special it was to see this Shiva image only once a year.
Bhaktipur’s religious monuments are very old, over 1000 years in some cases, and the earthquake damage is sad to see. However the amount of restoration that has been done in less than two years augurs well for the future. Many people lost their homes and are still struggling to rebuild, as Nepal is both poor and corrupt so they are on their own to pay for it. There is more money available to resurrect the temples and shrines, plus foreign aid to help out.
Our square is the oldest in Bhaktipur but a short walk took us to the Durbar Square with its former royal residence and other large temples. Two other squares of note were the potters’ square and Taumadi with the highest temple in Nepal (of course your hardened correspondents climbed to the top).
One day we took a car into the countryside to find a very important temple, Changu Narayan which was heavily damaged by the earthquake and closed for a time. Open again but in the midst of restoration by a team of archeologists with some German funding, it is possible to imagine the grandeur that was. The roads were terrible and got worse as we went to a very high Kali temple to supposedly admire the beautiful view which was completely obscured by mist. We knew this was not the time of year for mountain viewing, we will have to be lucky to get a good look at the Himalayas even from Pokhara.
We got up to a gorgeous, newly built Tibetan Buddhist Monastery called Namo Buddha, such a peaceful spot. Since Tibetan New Years is starting, there were many making their devotions, including a large group from Korea with Korean monks. The monastery is built on the spot where a young Buddha in a previous life as a prince found a tigress who was starving and could not feed her cubs. Out of compassion he allowed her to eat him so that the cubs could be fed. He then ascended to a higher plane of existence. The cave where this all took place is populated now with a stone tiger family, and is a sacred place of worship.
We so enjoyed our time there that we have decided to return for our last couple of days and go to the airport from there. We are so charmed already by this country and the easy going Nepalese, that we wonder why it has taken us 43 years to make a return trip!