Nepal, off the beaten track
Visiting Nepal is a colourful and confronting experience, but it’s also a deeply replenishing one, as discovers. We dance, we sing, we laugh, we cry. I walk away with a distinct sense of the fragility of life, and the thought that when it comes to an end
In the low light, we sit on the floor, the plastic mat sticking to the backs of our thighs in the early evening heat. We hunch over our thin chopping boards, slicing clove after clove of garlic. My back twinges and I think, for the thousandth time in the past 24 hours, how easy I have it back home. Here, in this host family in Panauti, everything is just that little bit harder.
Tucked away in a valley at the confluence of two sacred rivers, Panauti is a serene and holy Nepalese town filled with temples. Most travellers visit just for the day, rushing through on their way to Pokhara for trekking. But I’m travelling with Crooked Compass who, specialising in off-the-beaten-track adventures, have specifically designed an itinerary that doesn’t involve trekking so we can really penetrate the cultural side of the country. And what better way to do that than to organise for us to spend two nights with host families through Panauti Community Homestay, an empowering women’s initiative giving travellers the opportunity to experience the life of a Nepalese village family first-hand.
The home I’m staying in is humble, with doorways you have to squat to get through, ladders where stairs would usually be, no glass in the windows, and the occasional pigeon or mouse popping in to say hello.
It’s definitely not for everyone. But for the duration of my stay it’s filled with smiles, laughter and the mouthwatering scents of Newari cuisine. For those really wanting to wriggle under the skin of this town, staying here is a wonderful opportunity.
My host ‘‘dad’’ Ram Shrestha, a devout Hindu, has shown me around the serene old quarter, where we explored the ornate riverside temples, roamed the dusty ochre-hued laneways, and climbed to a lookout at the town’s outskirts to watch the sunset. I’ve chatted with the Shresthas’ 18-year-old daughter, Linda, about her dreams of studying in California, and watched their 9-year-old Luniwa sing and dance to Bollywood tunes. Now, I’m helping my ‘‘mum’’ Rajani prepare dinner. Once we’ve finished chopping it’s time to fry fresh dosas, saute veges in cumin, turmeric and chilli, and stir soupy lentil dal.
Crowded around the small plastic dining table I mimic the Shresthas as they use their hands to eat. Squelching rice into a ball with my right hand, I mop the ball into the soupy vegetables and stuff the whole business into my mouth. There are giggles as food slips between my fingers and slops back onto my plate. Nepal’s famously potent ‘‘raksi’’ rice wine flows and we chat into the night.
At one point, the Shresthas bring out a stack of photos of Luniwa’s ‘‘sun wedding’’. There, spread across the table, are images of a 7-year-old Luniwa clad in the traditional Nepalese wedding garb of a bright red sari and heavy gold jewellery, with a terrified expression on her face. And no wonder. In broken English, Ram explains this coming-of-age ritual for Nepalese Newari (the indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley) communities, in which girls between 7 and 13 are married to the ‘‘sun god’’ in a 12-day ceremony. For the first 11 days Luniwa was kept in a dark room, away from sunlight and any male contact to purify her before her ‘‘marriage’’.
It’s a fascinating ceremony, if not a little confronting by my Western standards. But it’s nothing in comparison with what lies in store the next evening.
After bidding our Nepalese families and serene Panauti farewell, we make our way back into the honk and blare of Kathmandu. At the outskirts of the city we reach the Unesco World Heritage-listed Pashupatinath temple, Nepal’s most sacred site comprising 400-odd shrines on the banks of the sacred Bagmati River. We stand on the dusty stone steps leading to the river and watch sadhus, or mystics, wrapped in tangerine robes with long beards wander by, while across the river four large funeral pyres burn.
‘‘We Hindus believe the soul is indestructible,’’ says our Crooked Compass guide, pointing to the pyres. ‘‘Death is just the end of our physical bodies, but the soul continues its journey and is reincarnated in another form. Burning the body rids the soul of any attachment to the body it was in.’’
We continue walking by the river, accompanied by a couple of rogue cows until we reach the site of the nightly aarti ceremony, Arya Ghat, the most widely used cremation site in
The way to one of the biggest Hindu Temple of the World, Pashupatinath Kathamandu, Nepal.
A traditional ceremony in Nepal.