Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “Hindu temple”

Nepal – in and around Kathmandu – Day 6

The holiday is over, and the people of Kathmandu have returned from their families and festivities to normal – and so has the pollution level in the city.   We steered through appalling traffic and dust and made our way outward and upward into the foothills.  The further away from the valley we got, the clearer the air, but the haze was still evident until we were well up the foothills.  It is hard to know how to fix this problem – like all cities in developing countries Kathmandu is a magnet for people looking for education, opportunity, excitement.

We headed for Dawainkali –  the temple dedicated to Kali, goddess of death and destruction.  “We are lucky you took a break day,” says Shaku, our guide.  “If we had come on Monday as planned, there would be little to see, but Tuesday is a day for sacrifices.”  We look at each other dubiously.

We arrive at the site, and walk up a cobbled street past blocks and blocks of people selling items for sacrifice, ranging from bouquets of roses and garlands of marigolds to chickens and baby goats. Not so many souvenir sellers – these stalls are for genuine Nepali worshippers, not just for tourist show.

At the site two long queues of people writhe around the shrine.  In addition, paths are set aside for non-Hindus and others excluded from the temple to observe the proceedings.  Shaku confided that she was very unhappy not to be able to participate, as she was  the wrong time of the month; women in menses cannot enter the temple.  However, she directs us to the best vantage point, and we are able to witness the decapitation of a goat as well as the axing of a number of chickens and coconuts.

Once the sacrifice is made, the blood is sprinkled on Kali’s image, and the devotee is free to reclaim the chicken, goat, or coconut.  Just outside the inner shrine is a shed where the animals are plucked, gutted, and dismembered for later barbequing.  The marble floor of the area was stippled with blood drippings and mud – the thought crosses my mind that if I slip and fall I will probably have to be air-lifted to Delhi for blood purification.
Next we climb up a steep hill of steps to a second, less blood-thirsty shrine overlooking the first, where the worship of Vishnu goes on inside  while at the same time at a corner of the plaza has been set up as  a small temporary Buddhist shrine , festooned with prayer flags, and a group of Buddhists are devoutly reciting scriptures under the tutelage of a white-garbed teacher.  A nice example of Nepali’s peaceful coexistence of religions. (Maybe it’s only the Muslims and Christians whose evangelical fervor makes trouble?)

On the way down we stop for tea and sai, a sort of Nepalese donut.  Since we eat with our guide, the entire set including a Coke came to 70NP (the going rate for a Coke alone in Thamel is 80NP). However, the Nepalese make no secret of their double standard in pricing;  all the museums and historic sites charge foreigners and tourists 3-5 times as much as ‘citizens of the SAARC” – which includes India, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, etc.  This seems fair for the historic sites, as the funds are used for maintenance and restoration, and even at restaurants the tourist rate is still very reasonable – we have not paid more than $6 / person for any dinner.

Next we visit a relatively new Buddhist stupa founded by Thai Airlines in memory of the crew members and passengers of a Thai Airways flight between Bangkok and Katmandu that crashed in 1992.  Golden buddhas, and a good view of smoggy Kathmandu below.

Our final stop is at a traditional Newari village, where  women in traditional costumes are threshing and winnowing rice using woven trays – tirelessly filling the trays and tossing the rice to the wind to allow the chaff to float away.  Where were the men?  Groups of them squat on street corners playing cards with dried beans for markers.  “It is a festival time for them,” explains Shaku – but evidently not for the women.

Back through the dust and pollution and traffic to our hotel – this time I use my neck scarf as a face mask and it was better.  We bid our escorts good by with generous tips (I am not the wife of an ex-tour guide for nothing.)

Our third friend has joined us, and we have been moved to the Holy Himalayan Hotel’s equivalent of a penthouse suite -two rooms, one with a king bed and bathroom with a tub, the other with twin beds, a balcony, and a small kitchen.   The cost is actually less per person.

For dinner we follow the recommendation of my sister’s colleague and hit  Fire and Ice Pizzeria.  Like other restaurants in Thamel it was founded by people who came to hike and stayed – the pizzas are as authentic as can be made with Nepalese ingredients, and the place is packed.

We sat at table with a charming young Belgian couple who had just completed much of the Annapurna circuit and had also gone to the Chitwan national wildlife park – another of the World heritage sites in Nepal where one can enjoy bathing with the elephants,  canoeing through the rain forest, spotting rhinos, and dodging crocodiles.  Maybe next time.

Note to travelers in Kathmandu:  If you want to get seated promptly at a restaurant, arrive at 6PM or shortly after – by 7PM the joint was jammed and jumping.

Second note to travellers in Kathmandu:  if you want to get your check in a hurry at a restaurant that is jammed and jumping, fugeddaboudit.

Third note: When you get the bill, be sure they return the credit card BEFORE you sign the chit.

Nepal – Day 5 – the Wonder of Bhaktapur

What makes a spot qualify as a Wonder?  Not just beauty or history or size – it must induce a certain giddy glee at the sheer audacity and over-reaching achievement that makes you want to laugh with pleasure.  The Great Wall made me feel like this.  So did the Taj Mahal, and Chichen Itza.  So did the Katmandu Valley’s Bhaktapur.

Unlike the other World Historic Sites we had seen, Bhaktapur embodies a sense of order – not just in the relative homogeneitiy and symmetry of its large public squares, but vertically, as its pagodas reach toward the sky on carefully sequenced plinths representing logarithmic orders of power. (Is that cool or what?  Never have I ever simagined logarithmic progressions embodied in material form, and certainly never expected to see an embodiment in a 400-year-old brick-and timber Hindu temple.)

Maybe you, like me, had never heard of Bhaktapur, much less seen a picture.  Here is the Nayatopola Temple which so impressed me.

This temple is the tallest in the Kathmandu Valley, and in my eyes the most beautiful and interesting.  The  guardians on the five plinths are carefully selected:  the first level shows two legendary champion wrestlers, the most powerful humans in Nepali lore.  Above them, ten times more powerful, are two elephants.  Above them, and again ten times more powerful, two  royal lions.  Above them, again ten times more powerful, two griffons from Nepali myth.  And representing the final level of guardian power, two goddesses.

Inside the temple is an image of Durga, the blood-thirsty avatar of Parvati, Vishnu’s consort.  Only priests are allowed inside.  The temple rises five stories tall, each roof seeming about to take wing.  The final spire points the way to heaven.

I can’t stop thinking about the concept of the levels of power, and the thinking that enabled this representation of Man’s humble place in the universal order in such a masterfully graphic way.  Not only does it take my imagination from the human to the divine, but leaves five more orders of power and divinity which are invisible and unknowable, beyond our ability to conceive.  I can’t think of a better monument to the limitations of our knowledge of God.

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