Kathmandu, February 12, 2011
First image of Kathmandu: a bearded gnome in billowy, bright yellow garments, a nice counterpoint to his scarlet turban and umbrella, my first saddhû (wise man) waiting on a street corner.
I ventured downtown, hoping to find a money-changer. “Walk to the river and turn left”, I’m told. The walk along the river shore should be a pretty one, but the river has shrunk down to a smelly, slithering stream, strewn with garbage. The sun is going down fast, in a few minutes it will be pitch-dark and even darker than that, since there is no electricity at night in Kathmandu. Perhaps a 15 watt light bulb here and there, if the owner of the shop is affluent enough to afford a generator; a few candles but they are scarce. The man who offers to take me to the money-changer presents himself as a businessman even though his outfit is unusual: bare legs under a dirty dhôti and half undone turban but, somehow, he seems trustworthy. The New York woman I’ve ventured into town with doesn’t seem to agree as I follow him into a narrow alley. She is trying so hard to dissuade me that I finally tell our businessman that it’s too dark, too far and turn around. She is convinced that we were about to be assassinated. But, out of the alley, our man is still there to take us to the money-changer through a more conventional route. After all, my instinct was right: he takes us to a well-lit office, tips his turban, namaste and he’s gone. We got a very good rate and a guide: a pretty sixteen-years old who happily babbles in good English, takes my New-York friend by the hand, leading her to an ATM, opening a wide berth for me to walk behind, safe from buzzing motorcycles.
In the morning, on the sacred site of Pashupathi, bodies are burning by the Bagamati river and ash-rubbed saddhûs, faces died saffron; one entirely painted yellow from his dirty braided hair to his long toenails squat on the sills of the eleven temples. They look like statues with their plastery hides.
Saddhus in Pashupati
Not quite sure if they are holy men or well-disguised swindlers: one smokes a cigarette. How painfully does faith, any faith, manage to reach me in my skepticism! But I’ll certainly feed one monkey my last banana and tangerine. The monkey eats politely, peeling the banana as delicately as we might at the breakfast table. His master: red turban and many necklaces on his bare chest asks for milk for the monkey. For a second, naive as usual, I wonder if he’s expecting me to nurse the monkey who looks old enough to be weaned…
The temples, perfectly aligned, create when you look through them the illusion of infinity, as one seems to mirror the other in never-ending reflections. Around each one of their four arches, threatening, grimacing gods mount guard. I am always astonished that a religion as peaceful as buddhism would have such frightening symbolism in which devils become protective deities. Not an ounce of benevolence in those monkey-headed snakes, griffin-headed dragons, snake-eating, red-faced monsters, all sculpted in soft, glowing golden stone.
A vision of infinity
Bahtapur, Nagarkot and Patan, February 13th, 2011
Two eyes, two ears and two nostrils are definitely insufficient to absorb everything about Kathmandu and the surrounding towns of Bahtapur, Nagarkot and Patan. There is so much! Nepal is like a toy store. You don’t know where to look, what to choose, it is the country of perpetual dilemma and excruciating choices. You have no choice but to let them guide your steps, wondering if you shouldn’t have walked in the opposite direction where the temples seem even more sumptuous, the sounds of gongs and trumpets more fetching, the smells of curry mixed with jasmine and incense more intoxicating. I want to climb the steps of all the pagodas and stay there loitering in the sun with the Nepalese; I want to let my fingers run against every intricately latticed window and rub the belly of every Buddha, the trunk of every elephant, the horn of every rhinoceros In a way, it’s a bit like life: all those darn choices and the utter privilege to even have them.
Bakhtapur, Durbar Square
As I am overlooking the main square of Bahtapur from a terrace, I meet my first Québécois. It had to happen since Québécois seem to be everywhere and that no trip would be complete without finding one in the most exotic or remote destination. This one is on a research trip with a delegation from McGill’s Department of Psychiatry, they are studying the effect of the class system and …torture on the mental health of Nepalese.
Down in the square, a procession is coming our way: red-coated musicians with fifes, trumpets, trombones and drums, followed by an elegant delegation of men in suits and women in saris, I’m not quite sure what they are celebrating as they disappear behind an old rose and tarnished gold pagoda.
If the nice neighbourhoods of Kathmandu look like Switzerland with their neat alpine pavilions, Durbar Square is more like a collection of precious medieval reliquaries of cast bronze and gilded copper repoussé work. A menagerie of fantastic stone animals inhabit the square, while huddles of tall, narrow, cantilevered houses with terraces perched here and there, sprout asymmetrically in an apparently illogical order, except for the logic perhaps of drying brightly coloured clothes hung about them like so many flags in the wind. However, the villages, nestled amid fields of wheat grass remind you, in their neatness, of the villages and farmyards of children’s books. The irrigated fields with their mathematically parallel channels, create an embroidered pattern of light green and deep lush green: celadon water in the channels against emerald on the grassy ridges while little peasant houses with their bright blue windows and doors, baskets of tomatoes and ginger set just so, remain undisturbed by a happy community of dogs, yaks, goats and chickens living in perfect harmony in that garden of Eden. Once in a while, against the pale blue sky of high altitudes, a snow covered Himalayan peak makes its ghostly appearance. Two fluffy dogs have decided to follow which gives me a chance of scratching their ears, a treat I have been missing lately. They seem to like it as they rub against my legs like cats and then disappear behind haystacks shaped as stûpas or little pointed huts.
But back to the terrace over Durbar Square: I sip jasmine tea full of leaves that I spit out – like everybody else – between mouthfuls of dhal and rice, while keeping an eye on cookie-stealing ravens. Below is the forest of temples of Bahtapur’s main square where I will continue my exploration, peeking in the deserted courtyards of minor temples, scaring flocks of gurgling pigeons away in a sky-darkening cloud, observing women, a khôl-eyed baby on the hip, collecting water in plastic jugs, filled from the grimacing maws of serpents that might very well have crossed the Bering Straits once, long, long ago to be reincarnated into the plumed serpent of the Aztecs.
An ancestor of the Aztec plumed serpent?
Behind the gilded doors of a former royal palace, hides the Patan Museum displaying the sacred arts of Nepal. I am getting a bit confused throughout the many dynasties and reincarnations of their gods and find myself more attracted by the cushioned window seats overlooking the living museum of Durbar Square, with Garuda, the flying sun bird perched on a column – vertiginous among the temples – mounts guard over a flock of street urchins playing some sort of coin tossing game.
Yet a bronze casting of a rat, Ganesha’s – the elephant god’s – mount, catches my attention: as all elephants should, Ganesha rides a rat, or a shrew perhaps, judging by its pointed nose. The animal, exquisitely stylised, but touchingly realistic at the same time, holds a ball in its little front paw. It looks almost alive and most endearing, so much so that in the museum shop, I weigh a reproduction, hesitating and wondering for a long time whether I should buy it or not. It is rather heavy and I reluctantly put it down. I am still thinking about that rat, or shrew as it might be.
Ganesha's Rat or Shrew
Reluctantly leaving Nepal’s relative peace and political chaos – I am told – for India’s greater apparent chaos but somewhat more stable regime. I was surprised to find that Maoists remain busy as bees here (I thought they’d gone out of fashion twenty some years ago. Apparently not, as they keep arresting Chinese infiltrators posing as tourists and raising havoc on India’s eastern border and in Nepal that has, so far, acted as a buffer between India and China. Comfortable place to be between China and Jihadist Pakistan!).