This was the beginning of a three-week, life transforming travel in Nepal.
First contact with Nepal, the very modest and inefficient airport in Kathmandu. I could see the hills from the plane while landing, dotted with what appeared unfinished red brick buildings. I later learn they’re finished, but just raw… like everything else here. Even though there’s only one plane landing at this time, it took an hour or so to clear immigration. The rudimentary airport organization is no bother, travelers arriving here are open-minded trekkers – everybody gets on with the formalities without complaint.
On the taxi ride to hotel the first shock of the Kathmandu streets, the utter poverty bared visible, heaps of garbage lining the streets. By the former royal palace they were burning the bamboo leaves, chaotic traffic, people and children in tatters by the side of the streets.
We first visit the Boudhanath, one of the holiest Buddhists temples in Nepal. We had both driver and hired a guide to walk us through the history of the place. The Temple as seen from above resembles a giant mandala, four layers of the stupa surrounded by a walkway where people walk in clockwise direction, the Buddhist way. The first wall is surrounded by prayer wheels, turned by pilgrims and visitors alike in clockwise motion. The whitewashed walls of the stupa are cleaned and maintained continuously. On the left side of the walkway are Buddhist monasteries, painting schools where you can see the apprentices at work, painting the thangkas – a form of meditation in itself. A sense of time standing still…
Our next experience – breathtaking, muting and introspective, all in one: Pashupatinah – one of the holiest temples of Shiva in the world. In Kathmandu, one can’t escape the smoke while crossing the Bagmati River from airport to the city. And your taxi driver will point it to you. They all know what it means. I wonder if this constant reminder of death makes people here soft, calm and in the moment… If the first contact with Kathmandu was a shock in itself, Pashupatinah takes the culture shock to a whole new dimension. Surrounded by a very poor neighborhood, our driver takes us as close as he can find a reliable parking spot, then shows us the direction. We walk a narrow street, amidst raw poverty: cows, pilgrims, beggars, children, fruit and flower sellers… all in a colorful cacophony of smells and sounds.
We are not Hindu so, not allowed to visit the temple proper but we are free to roam the grounds and cross the river for a ticket entrance. On one side of the river is the temple where pilgrims gather, walk the grounds, perform puja – the Hindu prayer rituals… There is a hustle and bustle of religious activity, some sense of administrative oversight, commerce, and simple wandering. Fortune tellers or astrologers, flower and vermillion sellers sit cross-legged on the sidewalks under colorful umbrellas.
Barely on the grounds of the temple we notice an establishment for the old – perhaps maintained and financed by the temple and donations. They just happen to be served a meager lunch of rice and water… The destitution of old age in a poor country is hard to bear. Yet, to me everyone is beautiful.
We cross the Bagmati, a dirty trickle in dry season, mightily swelling in monsoon. The right bank is lined with ghats, platforms where the Hindu families cremate their departed ones. The cremations take place at any time of the day, every day. On the upper side of the river, underneath the Temple gate is the section where the rich are cremated. Down river and down wind is where the poor are turned to ashes. Regardless of one’s standing, the platforms are swept clean – with everything remaining after the straw and wood and flesh give up in breathing flames. The charcoals, ashes, and remains are washed into the river in a somber whirl of thick smoke. I saw children by the river on the upper side; at first I thought they’re playing, later we find out they are the river destitute scouring the dirty waters for the occasional gold ring or bangle left in ashes. On the down (poor) side of the river no children but a heard of holy cows unfazed by the whole business of death.
I notice a clinic for eye examination – odd location I think to myself – a shabby room by the poor section of the river… I find out later from a child turned guide for us, that the eye is the only organ alowed for transplant from a corpse. I haven’t verified this. We quietly and respectfully take in the entire scene for quite some time. Later we walk up the hill among countless shrines and see the sadhus, the holy Hindu men sitting in contemplation, alone or in groups, some open to interact with visitors, while others are reclined in meditation or deep sleep. We interact with a group of six sadhus, they are open to conversation, speak English, allow us to take pictures and tell us they are covered in cremation ashes. Bright orange warps around the limb bodies, painted foreheads or intricate henna paintings all over face. I think they pose!
They are expecting money and we pay; for the non-commercial sadhus I guess we’d have to visit an ashram. But it feels good, peaceful and strangely cool… there is something hippy in the air.