Before returning to India, I spent three nights at the Karma Travel Home in Kathmandu, located in the central tourist district of Thamel. It was not only the same hotel but the same room that Clare and I had stayed in on our previous visit. We’d liked it for its older-style, a quality we look for in accommodation because it usually means a more comfortable and natural experience than the stuffy and claustrophobic environment often found in a more modern hotel.
The room was relatively large, had an ensuite, double bed, worn parquetry floors and a door that opened onto an outdoor seating area. It received lots of light during the day and for Thamel it was relatively quiet at night. The shower was hot and had almost explosive pressure but the the toilet leaked continually; a recurring theme throughout the cheaper hotels in Nepal and India. Due to extensive renovations throughout most of the building, the room’s ambience during daylight hours was interrupted with the sounds of hammering and machine tools. On the whole though, the hotel, being in a good location and priced at only 1800 Nepalese rupees (£12.40) per night, represented reasonably good value for money.
Exploring the Streets of Kathmandu
After settling into the hotel, I went for a brief walk around the Garden of Dreams and enjoyed a tranquil respite from the traffic mayhem of Kathmandu’s streets. It was then time to indulge in some Western-style food. After weeks of trekking and eating mostly rice and spicy local dishes, it was incredibly satisfying to find a Thamel restaurant serving fresh and decently made Italian pizza.
The next morning, much to my surprise, it was cold and raining. The locals said it hadn’t rained in Kathmandu for months, so it was generally welcomed, at least by shop owners, as it helped settle the dust. It wasn’t long though before the streets had turned to mud and I ventured out in hiking boots I hadn’t envisioned wearing again and a rain jacket I hadn’t worn at all on the trip.
Kathmandu is an interesting city to explore, particularly the maze of narrow backstreets south of Thamel on the way to Durbar Square. The streets are often unsealed, and lined on each side with hole-in-the-wall stores selling all kinds of wares and curiosities. I had the sense that there was so much more to discover in Kathmandu. Religion, particularly Hinduism, was embedded everywhere in the landscape and the life of the city. Small shrines and temples with their stone sculptures of deities and sacred animals were frequented by Hindus performing prayer rituals. In symbolic gestures of devotion, they would light candles and incense sticks and decorate their deities with garlands of orange and yellow marigolds, food items and splashes of vermillion paint.
There were two religious sites I wanted to see in Kathmandu before I left. The first was Pashupatinath, a sacred Hindu temple complex on the banks of the Bagmati River and Boudhanath Stupa, a famous pilgrimage site for Buddhists.
Pashupatinath Hindu Temple
Pashupatinath was located close to the international Airport so I took a taxi from Thamel and was dropped off a short walk from the edge of the temple complex. Like many places in Kathmandu, particularly those outside Thamel, the area around Pashupatinath was dusty and rubbish-strewn. It was common to see open or barely covered drains that reeked of sewage.
To get to the entrance, I had to walk along a street flanked on each side by stalls selling souvenirs and religious icons. There were almost continuous attempts by vendors to get my attention, mostly through polite and well-practiced ‘hellos’, followed by ‘where are you from?’ and then by requests to buy this or that product or service. As a very white Westerner who enjoys taking photographs, it was virtually impossible to blend in and so to local people in touristy areas I was really nothing more than a walking wad of cash.
Trying to compete with the cacophony of sales pitches were the less audible appeals from people sitting in the dirt, some with missing limbs, terrible deformities, even open wounds, begging for money from those passing by. They were dressed in dirty clothes, their hair was knotted and their skin covered in grime. They looked as though they were twisted into awkward postures from which they couldn’t move. In some cases those poor people barely looked human. They were the outcast and there were such numbers of them. If there were one or two, I could have left something on their plate, but there were so many, and all I could do was look away and try to maintain my focus on where I was going.
The main temple, known as Pashupatinath, is a large pagoda-style structure dedicated to Pashupati (lord of the animals), an avatar of the Hindu god Shiva. The temple itself was off-limits to non-Hindus, so there was no way for me to get inside. In front of the temple were a series of stone steps called ghats, leading down to the edge of the fetid and polluted river. A small crowd of people had gathered there and others were peering over a railing from a viewing platform higher up. I soon realised that a funeral was in progress.
To get a better view on what was happening I crossed a bridge to the other side of the river and joined what was essentially a group of ‘spectators’ to the funeral of a complete stranger.
From my new vantage point I noticed a dead body lying on one of the stone ramps leading directly into the river. The body was wrapped in an orange shroud and laid out on a stretcher. The weathered brown face of an old man was visible, eyes closed, the ‘third eye’ marked in vermillion paint. Several men and women had gathered around the corpse. A woman, probably his wife, assisted by family members, was brought over to view the body. She broke into a loud and sustained wailing until eventually they moved her away.
Then I saw a procession of four bearers carrying another body on a stretcher down to the ghats. The body was covered entirely in a white shroud and was laid on a second stone ramp that lead directly to the water’s edge. Several assistants carried large bundles of straw and firewood in preparation for the cremations which would take place on special funeral pyres built on top of the ghats. Logs from previous cremations were still smouldering in the waters of the Bagmati.
I was waiting patiently for the cremations to begin but the mourners seemed in no hurry to get proceedings underway. They would take turns to walk down to the ghats and view the body, perform simple rituals, say prayers and wash themselves in the rivers sacred waters. I cringed at the site of them bathing in the river, which although considered sacred, was incredibly polluted. Like with most funerals, apart from the occasional sound of grief, there was an eerie but respectful silence around the event.
I found it slightly frustrating that there was no indication of when the cremations would actually begin so I took the time to explore the rest of the complex. Being dedicated to the god Shiva, one of the Hindu holy trinity, the complex contained numerous references to the deity. Most notable was a sculptural feature called a lingam that consisted of a stone column supported by circular platform. It is symbolic of the infinite universe and the omnipotent and formless nature of Shiva’s divine power. On the eastern bank of the river, opposite Pashupatinath temple, several rows of Shiva shrines were constructed as small single-roomed temples, each with a lingam at its centre.
Nearby on the wall of another temple, were several paintings of popular Hindu deities. It had always intrigued me that so many of the representations of Hindu gods and goddesses had white, almost bluish skin, long black hair, and multiple arms. They were often melded with or accompanied by exotic animals in richly coloured and highly stylised fantasy scenes. The pantheon of hindu deities is massive yet all are really just representations of a supreme being and universal creator who cannot be understood, described in human terms, or attributed to any single form.
Despite my wandering, I found that I was continually drawn back to the spectacle of the funeral. Each time I returned, it seemed that nothing much had changed, so eventually I decided to leave and make my way towards the Boudhanath Stupa.
Heading away from the temple complex and up a flight of stairs into a forested hilltop, I passed still more Shiva shrines and temples before descending on the other side of the hill to the Guhyeshwari Temple, dedicated to the goddess Sati – Shiva’s first wife. The temple is also located next to the Bagmati River and in Hindu mythology represents the female side of the divine.
Both the Pushpatinath and Guhyeshwari temples are particularly important in Kathmandu. They symbolise the Shiva-Shakti unity which according to tantric beliefs represent the combination of masculine and feminine forces that created everything in the universe. Both temples, but particularly Guhyeshwari, are important pilgrimage sites for tantric worshipers.
Boudhanath Buddhist Stupa
While Guhyeshwari Temple is also visited by Buddhists, the more significant Buddhist site is the large stupa known as Boudhanath, about twenty minutes walk to the north-east. It is one of the largest stupas in the world and located on what was once a major trade route between Nepal and Tibet. Its simple whitewashed form had the appearance of something made by a potter, albeit one with very large hands. From its golden upper spire long streams of prayer flags, organised symbolically into repeating patterns of five colours, fluttered in the wind.
As I approached the stupa, I joined the ritual clockwise circumnavigation (kora) of its perimeter, along with other visitors and scores of Tibetan monks and nuns, dressed in their maroon robes. Many of those who walk around the stupa in this fashion also spin the prayer wheels located in niches built into the outer wall, often reciting prayers and chants in the process.
The architectural form of the stupa and the prayer flags flying from it represent the five basic elements: earth, water, fire, air and space/ether. The three-tiered base of the stupa symbolises the earth and the hemispherical dome above it represents water. On top of the dome is a golden square section called a harmika, with each of its four sides containing a pair of painted eyes, each looking out to the four cardinal points. The harmika supports a gold pyramid, its shape representing fire and its steps symbolising the 13 states towards enlightenment. The umbrella on top of the pyramid signifies air and the final spire refers to space or ether and the realm of the enlightened being.
The prayer flags suspended from the pinnacle come in five alternating colours – blue, white, red, green and yellow – representing as well the five basic elements. Their purpose is to spread positive attributes such as peace, compassion, strength, love and wisdom on the wind. Viewed from above, the entire stupa also forms a graphic symbol called a mandala, which represents the Buddhist universe.
Around the stupa, the streets fanned out like spokes from the hub of a wheel, forming almost an entire suburb devoted to Buddhism. Along with stores selling religious paraphernalia and various cafes and restaurants, there were several temples and monasteries dedicated to Buddhist learning and practice.
After a Nepalese lunch at one of the rooftop restaurants next to the stupa, I headed back to the hotel in a taxi. The journey took maybe thirty minutes and I was surprised to notice we didn’t pass through a single set of traffic lights. It was quite extraordinary, considering Kathmandu is the capital of Nepal.
According to online sources, there were once traffic lights installed in Kathmandu and the surrounding valley but most of them no longer work. At major intersections there was sometimes a policemen directing traffic using various hand signals, but everywhere else it was generally managed simply by the intuition of those driving the vehicles.
To me, the traffic in Kathmandu always looked like complete mayhem, yet at the same time it felt as if the motion of the traffic was actually more natural and fluid than if it had been controlled by an automated signalling system. Whether a person was driving a truck or riding a bicycle or carrying an awkward load of metal pipes across the road, there was always room for everyone to move and to get to where they were going. No particular vehicle seemed to dominate the flow. In many ways it mimicked a similar tolerance and respect for people’s spiritual journeys, and allowed two quite different religions to not only coexist, but intermingle and flourish alongside each other.