Monday, August 4, 2014

Memories of Nepal (Part 2, Day 2)

The Pashupatinath Temple, the holy seat of Lord Shiva, located on the banks of the Bagmati river in Kathmandu, was our first stop at the commencement if our second-day tour of the Kathmandu valley. The temple is another UNESCO World Heritage site, and is an important religious location for Hindus. It is the oldest Hindu temple in Kathmandu. The intricately-carved Pagoda style temple houses the sacred deity visited by thousands of pilgrims’ every day. Photography is strictly prohibited in the area, as in many other religious sites. Although always crowded, we found our way to the temple quite easily. It was a great experience visiting the Pashupatinath temple, and we both felt very happy to have had a chance to pray before the sacred symbol of our Lord Shiva.

Swambhunath Stupa. Nepal

Swambhunath Stupa. Nepal

Our next stop, the Swambhunath Stupa, was one of the most unique works of Buddhist architecture that I ever saw. It was unequivocally one of the most gorgeous structures I came across while in Nepal. The Swambhunath Stupa is located atop a hillock some 4 km west of Kathmandu. In case you are looking for a way to shed some adipose, you may want to climb the 360 steps that lead you to the top of the temple. As for us, we decided to opt for a short-cut: we ascended the hundred steps at the back of the temple that took us to the same spot. Although people are generally worried about monkey-attacks in the area, we didn’t see any out-of-the-way or wayward monkeys’ harassing tourists. Some four or five of the quiet ones were there, but they didn’t bother us. Many people give this place a miss because of the 360 steps and the stories that they hear from other travelers about the monkeys, but I thought that both these problems are highly exaggerated.

The breathtaking view of the Kathmandu valley and the surrounding snow-tipped Himalayan Mountains commanded from atop the Swambhunath temple relieved us of the slight exhaustion we experienced after climbing the hundred steps.  

Many legends abound the construction of the Swambhunath Stupa. It is said that the stupa was constructed during the Licchavi period and underwent several renovations during the medieval Malla period. Various historical monuments and votive shrines surrounding the area are a testament to the significance and antiquity of the famous stupa.

The central structure looked very much like the Boudanath Stupa we visited earlier, but we learned here that the tradition followed in the stupa is Vajrayana form of Buddhism, a tantric version of the religion. The stupa is erected on a lotus mandala base. Atop the central white hemispherical dome is the customary hermika, a square golden painted structure carrying the eyes of the Vairochana Buddha. The representation of the Nepali number one forms a question-mark like nose for the Buddha. Beautifully carved torans crown this hermika. Instead of the thirteen steps that we saw in the conical structure atop the square tower in Boudanath, the pyramidal structure on top of the hermika in Swambhunath consists of thirteen gold plated spires symbolizing the thirteen stages of salvation.  The structure is crowned by a circular umbrella-like structure and a golden spire.

Several other important sites surrounding the Swambhunath Stupa area are the Vajra Dhatu Madala, Harati Temple, a two-tiered Pagoda like temple dedicated to the mother-goddess Ajima, and the Panch Buddhas or five Buddha statues at the base of the stupa. Apart from these, other unique religious artifacts like prayer wheels, painted images of deities, numerous small temples and other eclectic religious objects are also located the area.

White Gumba, Nepal

White Gumba, Nepal

Our penultimate destination on the second day of our trip to Nepal was the Seto Gumba, or the White Monastery. The monastery, open to the general public only on Saturdays, is a nunnery rich with Buddhist artifacts. It is the best and the most beautiful monastery that I have been to in Nepal. Situated atop a hill, the White Gumba, or the Druk Amitabha Mountain, is a unique spiritual spot that eclipses the memory of all the previous monasteries you might visit in Kathmandu. The hike up the hill could be exhausting for travelers, especially old ones. The other option to reach the top is to take your car. Our driver was reluctant at first to take the car up the hill, but after a remonstration did as we instructed. Adjacent to the car parking area is the ticket booth where you can get your visitor badges. Entry to the Seto Gumba is free.

After having your visitor badges checked by a nun, you climb a series of stairs. A spot of ascension later, you reach a flat-topped area where you will see the first of many gorgeous golden Buddha statues that house the area. A splendid golden Buddha, his aureate features lathered with heavenly peace, gleaming under the glorious rays of the sun situated atop a beautifully painted rectangular pedestal will meet you at this juncture. Other golden statues of the Buddha of similar description are located at regular intervals on the way up the hill. The actual temple is located on the right of this first statue. We decided to visit it later.

View from White Gumba, Nepal

Breathless and perspiring, we reached the top of the Seto Gumba a little later. The view of the Kathmandu valley and the surrounding mountains verdant with vegetation commanded from atop the mountain will instill a sense of absolute peace in your mind. At the central area of this mountain, atop an elevated spot, are a series of gorgeous statues of the Buddha. These towering structures, gleaming in sunlight, representing the various facets of the Buddha will spellbind you with their ostentatious appeal. Underneath the cloud-flaked sapphire sky, the statues seemed to be brimming with life. They appeared to emanate a golden aura; their features, calm, composed, and perfect, were latent with divine tranquility. Their hands designed in some symbolic ritual mudra suggested some esoteric message that I couldn't decipher.

 If pantheism is your religion, you’ll find yourself greeted by the divine spirit at this spot where nature and divinity commingle into a perfect concoction and paint the atmosphere with a breathtaking kaleidoscope of colors. The blue of the sky, the white of the clouds, the green of the mountain vegetation, and the myriad colors of the prayer flags all stood out by themselves creating a sensational palate of colors too beautiful to forget.

The temple at the Seto Gumba was as sensational as the surrounding scenery and the golden Buddha statues in the monastery area. Since photography is strictly forbidden inside the temple, we couldn’t take any picture of its richly-decorated magnificent interior. The walls inside the temple have little glass covered showcases. Inside each of these showcases, is a gleaming brass statue of the Buddha.  Electric light bulbs that are switched on in the evening are fitted inside each of these little showcases. We wondered how beautiful the temple might look with all the lights inside the showcases switched on and all the brass-golden statues gleaming in the light. We tried finding a postcard with a picture of the interior of the temple in the evening, but there weren’t any available.

The traffic as we drove down the hill being extremely slow, it took us nearly an hour to reach the base of the hill. This delay resulted in us jettisoning our plan to visit the Bhaktapur Durbar Square that day and head straight to Nagarkot where we were to stay the night. As we made our way to this little hill station around 32 kilometers east of Kathmandu, it began to rain. The rain-swept vista before our eyes as we drove up a series of serpentine hilly roads on our way to Nagarkot was beautiful; nonetheless, we were too apprehensive at the time to enjoy it. At times the downpour was so heavy as to obstruct all view. However, as we neared the hill station, the rain stopped and an un-bright sun peered from the sky.

After the rain, the surrounding mountain ranges raised their heads momentarily and offered a spectacular view. People usually go to Pokhra to see the Himalayan range at close quarters; however, time being short, we decided to visit Nagarkot instead. Also, we were apprehensive about taking any domestic flight in Nepal. Nagarkot was, therefore, a great option for us being within easy distance from Kathmandu and offering a great view of the surrounding mountain ranges. It being the middle of July, we never expected to see any breathtaking mountain scenery; nevertheless, the evening view of the mountain ranges was spectacular in every respect.

View from Nagarkot, Nepal

 Our room at the Club Himalayas, a strategically located mountain resort, had a balcony, and from there we had a stunning view of the surrounding mountains and the valleys. We also climbed upstairs to the open terrace of the hotel and took several pictures of the breathtaking mountain ranges. The pine-covered, quaint little village of Nagarkot had beauty written all over it. The breeze that fingered my face and played with my hair was cool and refreshing. Devoid of the sooty finger marks of pollution, the air was light and invigorating. The mountains that stretched before my eyes struck me as curvy monsters sleeping with their bellies up. I stared at them with awe wondering what mighty hands had built them.

View from Nagarkot, Nepal

In the evening, my husband and I went out for a walk around the hotel and discovered the several little points which offered magnificent views of the mountains. The rest of the evening was spent at tour hotel-room balcony listening to the croaking of a jungle cow and watching the massive mountains before us gradually don the garb of darkness and tread into the realm of the night. 

A delicious dish of momos (steamed dumplings) we had at the Tree House Inn in Nagarkot, Nepal

Memories of Nepal (Part 1, Day 1)

Golden Temple, Patan Durbar Square, Nepal

Nestling in the Kathmandu valley, the city of Kathmandu, named after the Kasthamandapa edifice in the Durbar Square of Kathmandu, was our first destination at the exordia of our four days and three nights trip to Nepal. Having disembarked at the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu on a cloud-veiled morning, we found ourselves warmly greeted by the brass-golden statuette of the mythical humanoid bird Garuda. Apterous though I am, I couldn’t but appreciate the magnificent charm of the gleaming wings of the mythical bird statue. He stood next to the main entrance of the arrival-terminal with his hands folded, his right knee touching the ground, his eyes closed in reverence, and an expression of utter peace on his face. Behind him the word welcome was written in different languages and together offered a great photogenic point for the visitors. 

Welcome to Nepal

The airport is a brick building of mediocre dimensions and struck me at first as a bus terminus rather than an international airport.  The inaugural procedure of checking visitors’ documents before they are admitted to the city outside and the collecting of luggage nevertheless was quick. Indians do not need a visa when travelling to Nepal, and thus we were spared the rigmarole of having to apply for the same before our visit. A farcical final luggage screening later, we walked out of the airport to face a city that appeared to me very much like the one yo vivo en. It too, like Delhi, was home to a series of entrepreneurs, city guides and know-alls bubbling with secret information about their country. They materialize at airports and tourist hubs with halos of cognizance around them like knight errands ready to rescue nescient travelers from all kinds of touristy trouble provided you employ their services. Having travelled extensively in all these years, I had ample opportunity to study these rampant entrepreneurs, tourist guides and hotel-employed lobbyist (speaking on a miniature scale, of course), and have found them as an eclectic bunch belonging to two broad general groups. Members of one group will push their cause till death and influence every decision you take as a tourist, like where you should stay, what you shall see in the new country, and so on; and then there are the affiliates of the latter bunch who, when they receive a cold shoulder and an ear unheeding to their sanctimonious advice on how to survive in their city, give up your cause for good and engage their attention on catching some other fly that might prove better and nobler than you. Fortunately, the general laid-back lifestyle of Nepal has rendered its men as members of the latter group; therefore, you need not worry about being incessantly abluted by the advice and suggestions of tourist guides.

From the airport, we took a pre-paid taxi to the hotel De L’ Annapurna at the Durbar Marg where we had our bookings. The initial trip through the city introduced us to its garbage littered roads, its laid-back newspaper reading people, its shops and its terrible traffic managed by traffic policemen in blue uniform, surgical facemasks and pointed hats. You will find these traffic policemen performing their ritual calisthenics with little success on small patches of roads next to traffic intersections. The traffic movement in Kathmandu is laboriously slow as its drivers, each evidently following self-penned rules of driving, come from all sides and make the job of the traffic police extremely difficult. But we, citizens of India, being well versed with dingy road conditions, slow traffic and quisquilie were pleasantly amused to see that Nepal was a virtual replica of the nation we live in, and that thought made us feel more at home there.

Located close to the popular Thamel shopping area in Kathmandu, the hotel De l’ Annapurna was a delightful place to stay. Bountifully equipped with all modern amenities, this hotel also asperses its guests with a dosage of heritage. A giant thangka gracing a sidewall of the hotel lobby was the first thing that caught my eye. The painting of the blue god Mahakala Bhairav, his eyes delivering commination, a halo of fire surrounding him as he performed his wrathful dance was breathtaking. The hotel was luxury itself with gracious, ready-to-help staff and beautiful wood paneled rooms. It turned out to be one of the best places I stayed in my life.

The Boudanath Stupa

Our official tour of the Kathmandu valley began with our visit to the Boudanath, the biggest stupa in Nepal, situated 5 km east of Kathmandu. The stupa is surrounded with prayer wheels embossed with the famous sacred chant Om Mani Padme Hum. As the pilgrims circumambulate the shrine they set the prayer wheels in motion. The stupa, looking like a mandala from above, is a token of striking Tibetan architecture consisting of three large platforms on which rests the central hemispherical structure topped with a square aureate-painted tower bearing on its four sides the ubiquitous blue eyes of Lord Buddha. This tower is crowned by another triangular pyramid like structure with thirteen steps, and above it, is a gilded circular awning that is further topped by a golden spire. Colorful rectangular prayer flags tied to the stupa set aflutter by the wind communicate the holy prayers to the deities abaft. As I stood under the piecing all-pervading gaze of the azure-eyed god, a sense of peace moistened the abditories of my heart. Om Mani Padme Hum, I heard the meta-voice inside the head chant.

The area surrounding the Boudanath is flanked with shops selling souvenirs and Buddhist religious artifacts, and tchotchkes. My first buy from one of the shops was a beautiful handheld prayer wheel and a set of prayer flags. Most shops in that location ask exorbitant price for souvenir items, so discretion is advised when buying from them. A Thanka was a third item I wished to buy from Nepal, and after scouring the shops in the neighborhood of Boudanath, I discovered the one I really wanted to have. My thanka, depicturing the Manjusri Bodhisattva, the wielder of wisdom, armed with a flaming sword that he uses to execute ignorance and duality, now illuminates a corner of my home in Delhi. It is a constant reminder of my beautiful trip to Nepal.
Our next destination was the famous Patan Durbar Square. Durbar squares are actually plazas adjacent to the ancient royal palaces of Nepal. They house temples, open courts, fountains, statues of animals and so on. There are three Durbar squares in the Kathmandu valley— Kathmandu Durbar Square, Patan Durbar Square, and Bhaktapur Durbar Square— and all of them are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Located across the river Bagmati, the city of Patan, founded by the King Veera Dev in 3rd century A.D. is also known as Lalitpur. It is Nepal’s city of arts and is considered the oldest of the three cities in the Kathmandu valley.

A Temple at the Patan Durbar Square

    I think I shall always remember the moment I first saw the Patan Durbar Square. It was the first of the three Durbar Squares we visited and the memory is embossed in my mind like the sacred chant of Om Mani Padme Hum on spinning prayer-wheels outside the Buddhist temples. The buildings in the Durbar Square struck me as a series of recherch√© monuments build by the dab hands of some supramundane agency. Each unique edifice stood erected on its own spot, each a delicate work of art, a poetic vision in reality as true as the melodious notes of the nightingale that  made Keats dedicate his ode to the bird.
The moment I stepped into the Durbar Square I felt abluted of the past; it seemed all my former indiscretions, moments of sadness and pain, all of my life’s struggles momentarily eradicated before the stern majesty of those buildings. So beautiful were they, mostly pagoda style structures with brass spires poking the sky— that I wondered like Keats if what I beheld was a vision or a waking dream.

The Durbar square is a marvel of Newa architecture indigenous to Nepal. There are various breathtaking temples and structures in an around the Durbar Square area. Statues of Garuda, the humanoid bird revered in Buddhist and Hindu mythology, a leitmotif of all Durbar Squares in Nepal, appears at various points in the Patan Durbar Square. You will encounter one of them just as you enter the Patan plaza. He will be seen poised atop a tower, his face facing the old palace.

The important temples in the area are the octagonal Chyasing Deval, a temple of unique architecture dedicated to lord Krishna, the Bhimsen Temple, Viswanath Temple, the three-storied Golden Temple, etc. My personal favorite is the Golden Temple. It is a three-storied golden pagoda styled temple located a little way off the main square. The temple, with its exquisitely carved reliefs of gods and goddesses, its brass-golden elephants with figures of kneeling men with folded hands, and other figures of unknown demigods also done in brass, and especially its torans, exquisitely carved crowning structures mainly featuring deities that are found atop doors, are coruscating jewels of Newa architecture. Like most Buddhist temples, the Golden Temple in Lalitpur also has stationary praying wheels around the temple that you can spin as you circumambulate the temple.
The Golden Temple, Patan Durbar Square, Nepal 

Inside the Golden Temple, Patan Durbar Square, Nepal

After visiting the Patan Durbar Square, we headed in the direction of the capital city of Kathmandu to see the Kathmandu Durbar Square. But before we started our next trip, we slowed down for some Nepalese fast food. Momos, or dumplings that are steamed or fried, are a delicacy in Nepal, and a dish of the same was as saporous to me as the superb monuments and buildings in Nepal. I had several dishes of momos in Nepal, and the best of them was at the Tea House Inn in Nagarkot, but more about my momo-fied experience later.

Kathmandu Durbar Square, Nepal

The Kathmandu Durbar Square area, also known as the Hanuman-dhoka Durbar Square, boasts of dozens of temples. Among them, the most important sites include the Mahendreswar Temple, the Taleju Temple, Chyasin Dega, Kal Bhairav, Kumari-ghar, Kasthamandap, Hanuman statue and the nine-storied palace.
Kathmandu Durbar Square

As we sauntered down the main road fringed on both sides with souvenir shops and gazed at the other camera-holding tourists staring with awed us as us at the beautiful specimens of Nepali architecture, I thought about the power of art. Dequincy’s literature of power came to mind; probably, these monuments that move humanity and stir them to their depths by their sheer majestic appeal are in reality literatures in masonry crafted by authors whose names are conspicuous by their absence in the history of the world. I tried to imagine, making my way through a sunlight-washed strip of land of the Hanuman-dhoka Durbar Square, the faces of the wan-looking, over-tired tanlings in grimy clothes and with dry lined hands who actually built the great pieces of architecture that surrounded me. Except, what I saw, was not a series of faces, but one giant face that comprised, like the tessellated pieces of a puzzle, a thousand faces with indistinguishable ambiguous features that belonged to the workers who built the edifices in the arena.

Kumari-ghar, Kathmandu Durbar Square, Nepal

Our first halt at the Hanuman-dhoka Durbar Square was the Kumari-ghar, a holy home that houses Nepal’s living goddess, a mortal manifestation of the demon-slaying Hindu goddess Durga. The practice of worshipping the Kumari is an ancient Hindu practice. In India, too, the Kumari is worshipped during Durga Puja. The Kumari worship performed on the eighth day of the Durga puja by the Ramkrishna Mission, Belur Math, West Bengal, is especially famous. However, unlike the one-day ceremony of Kumari worshipping in India, the cult of venerating the Kumari is much more profound in Nepal. 
After an elaborate process of selection, which includes perlustration of horoscopes of various young girls, checking their features for thirty-two particular signs of divinity, the ancients of the Nepali community choose a small group of young girls. These contenders to the holiest of holy post of the Kumari are further subjected to the test of sitting inside a darkened room in company with freshly severed buffalo heads and demon-mask wearing dancing men. The atmosphere, as we can guess, should scare an ordinary five-year old girl, but the would-be Kumari wouldn’t display any sign of fear. Therefore, the girl who doesn’t display any hint of fear would eventually be the Kumari. 
Once selected, the Kumari moves in the Kumari-ghar where she remains until she reaches puberty. During her reign, a Kumari never leaves her dwelling, except on days of special festivity. The divine inhabitant, however, occasionally comes to one of her windows in the evening to wave at the visitors who gather at her courtyard.

When we reached the Kumari-temple, the place was already crowded with people waiting eagerly for a glance at the living goddess. The reliefs on the pillars and windows of the Kumari-ghar are fascinating and are a treat for a eyes. After a perusal of the architecture of the Kumari house, we gathered that the Kumari wouldn’t arrive until an hour later, and so, we decided to visit the other edifices around the area before we came back to the Kumari-ghar a little later. Nevertheless, when we came back from our trip after an hour we found that the Kumari had come and gone, and we never got to see the living goddess of Nepal.

Our second stop at the Kathmandu Durbar Square was the Hanuman Dhoka palace next to the famous vermillion-smeared statue of the monkey god poised on a stoned pedestal. The entrance of the palace, which houses a museum, now closed, is interesting. Two giant beautifully painted stone lions stand on either side of the main gate. As you step inside, you will find yourself in an extensive courtyard flanked on both sides by buildings belonging to the old royal family. The wood-carved relief works in the windows and the pillars of the royal buildings are spectacularly done.

On a sidewall of the building immediately left to the entrance, a series of pictures of the former kings of Nepal is displayed. If you care to know the royal history of Nepal, you may stop and study the pictures of Nepal’s royal sires. In the pictures many of the kings are depicted as standing in Napoleonic stances, wearing plumed headgears, with one elevated arm and an upraised index finger. The stairs at the back of this building will take you to the upper stories of the structure. This building, just like the nine-storied palace, has upper-stories completely vacant of furniture. Occasionally, as in the nine-storied palace, you may find a picture or two of the former kings’ in one of the walls, but other than that these buildings are completely vacant. Despite that we climbed the steep steps of the nine-storied palace and discovered the rubble-remains of the museum in one of the floors in the process. A painting of an arrow on the wall of one of the upper-stories of the palace pointing leftward accompanied by the words “museum this way” directed our attention to a room with closed iron shutters. Through the shutters, we saw the dusty remains of a vacated room with bare walls and rubble on ground. The museum was evidently closed for good.

After we exited the palace, we went to visit the famous Kal Bharav statue in the Durbar Square. This statue, depicting the destructive manifestation of lord Shiva, is undated, but said to have been installed at its present location by King Pratap Malla. The statue would awe you with its majestic proportions. Aspersed liberally with vermillion powder, the six-armed god with a golden crown is a unique structure in the Hanuman-dhoka Durbar Square. Incidentally, this statue had been a great aid for the government of Nepal who used it as a place for people to swear the truth, for it is believed that those who speak a lie in front of the Kal Bhairav would inevitably face death.

Kal Bhairav, Kathmandu Durbar Square, Nepal

My reason for being excited about seeing the Kal Bhairav was, however, entirely unrelated to the statue’s religious significance. The place did have religious appeal for me, but for an entirely different reason: my favorite fictive hero, detective Prodosh Mitra, alias Feluda, created by Satyajit Ray, during his adventures in Kathmandu in the novella Jato Kando Kanthmandu (Criminals of Kathmandu), had actually been to that place. A sketch in the book showed Feluda’s cousin and assistant, Topshe, and his friend, mystery-thriller writer Jatayu, alias Lal Mohan Ganguly, standing before the stone statue of the Kal Bhairav. It was a pilgrimage for me, visiting the same spot where Feluda had been several years before. The statue looked exactly how it had been portrayed in the book, and I was thrilled to be in its vicinity. For a moment, I felt I too was part of Feluda’s adventures in Kathmandu, and was busily engaged with the trio—Feluda, Topshe, and Jatayu— as they hunt down the criminals in Kathmandu. My husband, who is well aware of my eccentricities, took a photograph of me standing in the exact spot where Jatayu and Topshe stood in the picture. It was the most memorable picture of my Nepal trip.
The Sketch by Satyajit Ray Showing Jatayu and Topse Standing in front of the Kal Bhairav Statue in Kathmandu
Tago Ga`n, or the Big Bell, was our next stop. It is a bell supported by a couple of sturdy-looking stone pillars and a tiled roof. It is only when the deity Degitaleju is being worship that the bell is ever rung. It is just another religious accessory that looked very dapper in the area.

The Big Bell at the Kathmandu Durbar Square, Nepal 

Gaddhi Baithak, a white building, was our last stop before we finished our day tour. Built in 1908, this building, which was an extension of the old palace, was homage to the classical European style of architecture, and looked terribly out of place in company with the pagoda-style buildings that surrounded it. Albeit an anachronism, the neoclassical building was beautiful in every respect, like all the other structures in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square.

Having finished viewing and photographing the major edifices in and around the Durbar Square, my husband and I went to a coffee shop in the neighborhood to savor the taste of Made-in-Nepal coffee. The Nepalese did themselves well when it came to coffee making. We sat at a window seats at the coffee shop sipping our cappuccino and watching the crowd gathering around the Durbar Square with a feeling of satisfaction that comes when a day is very well spent.