Sunday 2 November 2014

Days 167 - 168: Kathmandu - Goddesses and ghats

Monk begs for alms in the Kathmandu traffic
If we have a home from home, it's in Kathmandu.  We know where to find the best curries and momos, which way to turn the prayer wheels, how suspicious to be of the fake North Face clothing, how the tune of 'Om mani padme hum' will unfold, what the most popular beer is called,  the frequency of seeing 'yak, yak, yak' embroidered on a t-shirt, and roughly how many times we will be asked to buy a singing bowl.

This time we were meeting friends - Tony, Pam and Nigel - before heading to the secluded Dolpo region to go trekking.  But first it was time for a day's sightseeing.  The five of us wandered down to Durbar Square, former home of the royals, to photograph the old palace and shrines (Kathmandu means wooden temple in Nepali).  A street seller tried to flog some prayer flags and I told him "chahidaina", "I don't want it".  "No, not China, this is Nepal.  China is a long way away," he replied, looking affronted.  Either he was being facetious or my Nepali pronunciation left something to be desired.

A few minutes later a television crew asked to interview me as it was national tourist day.  I mumbled at the camera.  Yes, I liked Nepal very much.  Yes, I was very happy to be in Kathmandu.  Yes, it was how I expected; I'd been here before.  They asked if Nepal could be improved for tourists and perhaps I should have been a little more forthcoming.  Clean water would not be a bad idea.  Enough power to keep Kathmandu running without thirteen-hour long daily power cuts might also help.  But this is mostly the case for the locals, not the tourists.  Living in torchlight for a few days won't hurt us, but for a lifetime?

Drumming monk at the
monkey temple
We wandered down to Kumari's temple, the young Hindu goddess selected as a child and secreted in a corner of Durbar Square (without playmates, without getting mucky in the streets, or playing childhood games of tag, skipping ropes, cat's cradle, whatever games Nepali children favour) until she first bleeds and becomes unclean.  Us women, we're such foul things ... but couldn't the gods have considered this before they made us?  To add insult to injury, the story goes that whoever marries Kumari will die, so she isn't exactly overwhelmed with suitors when her stint as goddess finishes.  As you've probably guessed, I'm not a huge fan of the tradition, although apparently her family are housed and she is well educated during her divine phase, which seems to make the post a coveted one.  (Presumably, this means that better standards of schooling and housing are needed across Kathmandu - not a surprise.)

We loitered for a while, hoping the glut of pigeons would not shit on us.  Finally, Kumari appeared at her window, with the immaculately made-up face of a woman or a mask, but not a girl, and looked down upon us for a few seconds.  Not a single camera flashed.  Kumari is sacred.

Back in the Thamel district it was time to go gear shopping and eat momos before the compulsory monkey temple visit.  It was my third hike up to the stone staircase, where fun-loving primates vied for attention with singing bowl sellers and stupas.  I hope there will be as many more to come.

Comedy (fake?) Sadu at Pashupatinath
Our final stop of the day was at Pashupatinath where the dead are cremated and their remains thrown into the river.  It is a holy place and we stood at a distance, watching torches ignite below a freshly-oiled pyre.  As the sticks caught light, I expected to see the body struggle even though I knew he was dead.  Humans fight to escape when flames engulf them and the dead still bear human form.  

When at last the body caught light, we tasted ash.  A few minutes later, the tenders swept his remains into the river.  Perhaps a fingernail, or a shard of bone, will appear downstream in India in water scooped from the Ganges.  But here in Pashupatinath, no sign remains; it is time for the next body to be carried to the pyre.

As we left, a woman tried to sell us souvenirs.  Even death has a gift shop.  We shook our heads and wandered back to the tagliatelli of Kathmandu traffic.  It was time to return to the hotel and prepare for our trek, if we could only tear ourselves away from reviewing our photographs.

Kathmandu is a colourful city, worth metres of film or gigabytes of memory, and we had plenty of pictures (see below) to remind us of the day.

Welcome to Kathmandu! Dinner at The Third Eye with Pamela, Tony and Nigel

Who would live in a house like this?

Kathestimbu Stupa

Prayers at Kathestimbu

Fruit Seller

Durbar Square

Pigeons over Durbar Square

Sadhu in Durbar Square

No wonder there are power cuts!

Pigeons and Pagodas: Durbar Square

Cycle Rickshaws

Tony gaining karma at the wooden temple

Traditional Newari hats on display

Kumari's house (no photos of Kumari are allowed unfortunately)

Baby Monkey 1

Baby Monkey 2

Begging for alms at the monkey temple

Team LMC at the Monkey Temple

Monkey temple... wait isn't that a pig?

Pigeons live there too!

Philosophical Rhesus Macaque 

Black Kite soaring over Kathmandu

Monkey temple Stupa

Monastic drums

3pm at the Monkey Temple sees the start of the drumming and chanting

Farewell to the Monkey Temple

Funeral pyres at Pashupatinath

Preparing the next pyre

The heat and smell is suffocating

Pyres are usually lit by the eldest son of the deceased who has his head ritually shaved

Sunset at Pashupatinath

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