The flight from Pokhara to Kathmandu in a medium size prop plane was spectacular. First we skimmed the Annapurna range, then turned to approach the airport and the Himalayas appeared, with Everest in the background. Quite the dramatic farewell to our mountain experience and the lovely Pokhara area.
This time we are staying in Patan, another of the kingdoms that originally made up historic Kathmandu, and considered to have the finest collection of temples and palaces in Nepal. Like Bhaktapur and Thamel, Patan has a majestic Durbar (palace) Square, sadly damaged by the earthquake but being actively reconstructed by armies of carpenters and female labourers carrying horrible loads of crushed rock, sand, and rubble in back baskets secured by head straps. Reconstruction of the religious monuments proceeds apace, aided by foreign countries. A golden statue of King Mahendra Yalla which sits atop a high pillar directly in front of the palace toppled to the ground during the quake. Even before beginning to dig people out of the rubble, people rushed to gather its pieces and carry them to safe keeping inside the palace grounds. Aided by Austria, the statue was resurrected 2 weeks ago, and sits as before, in solitary splendour atop its pillar, flanked by a golden Garuda on a similar pillar. The giant bell erected so the townspeople could alert the king to their grievances, tolled throughout the earthquake but didn’t fall. Patan is an elegant city, famous for metalwork which here means complex figures of the zillions of gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon as well as some enormous Buddha images which we lust after but which even Doug couldn’t carry home.
We have become so used to the evidence of the earthquake all around us that I don’t think I have ever described how many piles of brick rubble there are everywhere. The way buildings are supported by props from the ground, and “stabilized” by props that run across an alley or street building to building is rather perturbing. The main religious shrines are being repaired and I would think that in 5 years time would be quite back to normal, but housing repairs are lagging, and many people are living in buildings declared unsafe as they have no choice.
According to the newspaper, 625,000 homes were destroyed or damaged, and so far after nearly two years only 20,000 have been completed and of that 17,000 were paid for by the homeowners. The government has promised money to aid in repairs but the money has simply failed to materialize — incompetency and graft most likely. Foreign countries pledged help at the time but the projects did not get off the ground so the money has never been paid out. Joanne, a dentist whom we met in Bhaktapur who flies into remote areas doing dental education says that people in some villages that were totally destroyed are still living in tents supplied by organizations like Rotary and so on, at the time of the earthquake. They have been through 2 bitter winters under canvas with no end in sight. It is terrible how the poorest countries suffer the most from corruption and self serving governments.
As I sit typing this I am on the terrace of our lovely room in a restored 100 year old house, looking at a scene of earthquake destruction in the courtyards of buildings behind, all of which appear to be occupied. Sadly historic buildings that aren’t religious monuments will be torn down and their warm brickwork and ornately carved doors and windows replaced by cheap characterless concrete.
We’ve wandered the streets here, not blithely of course, as to stay alive one must be constantly vigilant of motorbikes, trucks, and cars that roar through narrow streets regardless of pedestrians crammed to the walls, enjoying our old friends among the deities on display in every little courtyard and byway. Not only are the Hindu gods beyond numerous, they all have other manifestations, with completely different names and characters, and each has a “vehicle” an animal of mythic figure who carries them and whose image will often be outside their little shrine. Ganesh’s vehicle is a mouse and for added effect, some shrines are populated by live mice, who feed on the rice offered to the god.
Doug has a particular fondness for Bhairab, the angry incarnation of Shiva. He is depicted in wrathful pose with a massive erection painted red. Doug feels his ill temper may be due to the fact that female devotees hang garlands of marigolds on his member in a quest for fertility. Another wrathful incarnation is that of Narsingha who is Vishnu is more cheerful. He is depicted disembowelling a “demon” ho had been protected by special powers, cleverly circumvented by Narsingha who is using his fingernails to administer the coup de grace.
Another odd twist to Hinduism in Nepal is the concept of the “Living Goddess.” She is a pre-pubescent girl, selected at age 4 by a series of 32 facial and physical characteristics and subjected to a test of “courage” before being chosen. Candidates are locked in a dark room where terrifying noises are heard, they are surrounded by buffalo heads and men dance by in horrifying masks. If one stays calm, she is chosen and then lives in the temple until she reaches puberty. In Kathmandu she is displayed only occasionally, but in Patan the poor soul is on display for a few hours each day and our guide insisted we visit. It was really awful, there she sat, all made up and dressed in red, on a little throne with her feet for some reason in a brass dish of rice, twisting and twisting her hands together, obviously in a state of trauma. Horrible to contemplate her life afterwards too, when she is returned to her family and is supposed to regain normality after 10 years away too. Apparently it is considered unlucky to marry one, so she is pretty much doomed.
We also enjoy Buddhist temples and monasteries of which there are many. Many Nepalis consider themselves Hindu/Buddhist, quite a few are Buddhist, and then there is the significant Tibetan population. In our rambles through the passageways connecting the courtyards of tall houses in each “neighbourhood” (reminiscent of the pols in Ahmedabad’s old city) we often emerge to find a stupa enclosing a Buddha image with a row of small prayer wheels around it.
One day we took a car out to see a particularly interesting Hindu temple called Dakshinkali a rather gory temple to Kali, the blood thirsty incarnation of Parvati (see what I mean?). This is a favourite Hindu pilgrimage site, and to satisfy the goddess’s lust for blood, devotees bring chickens, ducks, goats, and apparently pigs and buffalo on occasion, to be sacrificed to the goddess. Being pragmatic Hindus, they choose to bring something they would like to eat, pack an accompanying picnic, and after lining up for hours in the lengthy queue, they present their animal for sacrifice on the altar. When they are given back the headless corpse they take it to the butchering area where specially qualified priests whack it into pieces. Next is the barbecue area, where they have it cooked and then they all sit down on some patch of filthy garbage strewn ground to spread out their picnic and feast on the holy meat.
was quite the riveting sight, the whole thing, and fortunately non-Hindus are not allowed to view the visage of the terrible goddess so we did not have to go through the crushing queue but could observe from a viewing platform above. So glad, since in addition to missing the queue, we also did not have to take off our shoes and squelch barefoot on the floor awash with blood.
Finished with that we repaired to a tranquil Buddhist monastery nearby where Guru Rinpoche mediated in a cave for 15 years before going to Tibet for the rest of his life and spreading Buddhism there. He is, of course very famous there, and these monasteries bring back pleasant memories of our time in Tibet. The tranquility of worship of Buddhists displays devotion in a contrasting manner to the raucous Hindus!
We’ve had a great time here in our room with its “atmosphere” combined with comfort and the lovely terrace, now off back to Bakhtapur where we left some things at the Peacock Guesthouse where we started. We will go to the airport on Friday from there, dreading the journey as we have a 12 hour layover in Delhi before our 14 hour flight. Oh well, no use suffering twice by worrying about it beforehand (I tell myself..)
The last 3 months have flown by as usual. The 7 weeks in Gujarat were so very interesting and varied in every way, from mega city to pre-independence village, jungle to barren desert, hedonistic Diu to solemn temple town, from tribal groups to pilgrims, backpacker basic to palace accommodation, with a rich diet of eccentric hosts and 2 lions thrown in for good measure.
Revisiting Nepal has been a great treat, even more than we expected. The history is mesmerizing and the ubiquity of religion in daily life fascinating. The resilience of the people in the face of natural disaster, lack of infrastructure, and government incompetence is both a blessing and a curse. Every bit of it has been a great experience.
Thanks for sticking with us and sharing our good times, home is next!