Memories of Kathmandu
The sights, sounds and adventures of Nepal’s capital are fabulously bewildering and captivating
I had a list of favourite cities that jostled and rearranged as I travelled the world during my summers off. Paris, Ulaanbaatar, Cape Town, Melbourne — they all captivated me.
Then, I landed in Kathmandu. I didn’t know where to look: the mass of jumbled cords and wires above the streets reflected the teeming tangle of motorbikes, vehicles, cows, dogs and people — throngs of people on the move, helter-skelter. It was violent and unrelenting. Occasionally a macaque scampered and swung across the cables.
Lanes were loosely, creatively, terrifyingly interpreted. Drivers leaned on their horns. On either side of the roads, there were towering crates of Orange Crush and Pepsi, along with ramshackle carts of tomatoes, melons and bananas.
Out one window of the taxi a group of men, bare chested in flip flops, soaped up with buckets of grey water. Out the opposite window, women in long skirts carried awkward bundles on their backs. They were bent with their burdens as they casually chatted among themselves.
In both windows, little hands selling matches and bits of food tried to entice me.
The buildings and shops looked turbulent and thrown together. Nothing fit, yet it was all so irresistible. I was so not in Kansas anymore.
On the corner, close to my hotel, a barber covered his mirror with a cloth and hobbled over to the bridge for a smoke. Closed for the day.
The next morning, rested and rinsed free of the previous day’s dust and hullabaloo, I was ready to absorb everything on my agenda.
Every morning I felt the same; every evening I crashed. Kathmandu was just too dense, too fabulously bewildering; a sensual, unthinkable babble of sights, sounds and adventures.
The Bagmati River, holy to Hindus and Buddhists alike, flows through Kathmandu and eventually joins the holiest Hindu river, Ma Ganga, the Ganges. Into its torpid waters, the ash remains of countless generations of Nepalis have been poured. I was headed to the eastern bank of the river just opposite Pashupatinath Temple.
The pathway leading up the hill to where the cremation ceremonies can be observed at a respectable distance, had plenty to distract and tempt. Turquoise masks of Ganesha and Shiva, Tibetan singing bowls, rich red scarves and beaded bangles. The eyes of the Buddha were everywhere, doors, temples, T-shirts, cars. They reminded me of the blue eye of Turkey.
Cows and dogs, ever present, wandered, and the monkeys kept the tourists entertained, and the sellers wary. They are deviously light fingered, mercurial and saucy. Caps, water bottles, sandwiches, even the painful yanking of a dangling earring, schooled me to keep my distance.
At the top of the hill, looking across the Bagmati, there were several fires sending up swaths of smoke. The sight is immediately compelling. Cremation takes time and the queues seldom dwindle.
Over to the left by the bridge, a fiesta of tangerine-coloured marigolds were piled high and jumbled together for the mourners to place on the bodies. On a grey day with blurring swirls of ashen smoke, by a river almost black with pollution, this was the brightest bit of colour and warmth to a grieving tableau. That night I dreamed of apricots and pumpkins and my deceased mother, planting marigolds in her garden.
Then, there was Durbar Square: fiendishly fascinating, streaming with life and opulent with pigeons, ferocities and temples.
Street shrines, some with the fresh remains of a recent sacrifice; tumbling temples and dusty piles of bricks and masonry, courtesy of the 2015 earthquake; long lineups of men along a chain-link fence reading pages and pages from tacked up Nepali newspapers; divine statues of creatures and gods, the stuff of unvarnished childhood nightmares.
And always, the ever-present heaps of fire-hued garlands. All of these images butted their way into me, clamouring for attention, competing for primacy.
I wanted to stay longer, much, much longer, and enjoy a lassi at a café by the banks of this incredible stream of life, but I had an appointment with a four- year-old girl, the chosen living goddess, Kumari.
There are three kumaris in Nepal, but the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu is the most important one. She lives in the Kumar Ghar (Palace) in Durbar Square and only leaves the palace a handful of times for special festivities and rituals.
She is always carried; her feet may not touch the ground. She is believed to be the embodiment of the Hindu goddess, Taleju. When a kumari is chosen, and many families offer up their young daughters for this honour, she must undergo a long list of trials and criteria.
At the head of the list, premenstrual. At the onset of menstruation, the search begins anew for the next kumari. She must be a virgin with a perfect and pure body and possess enough bravery to witness several sacrifices without tears or dread.
There are dozens of other demands, and I wondered how they judged some of the more exotic stipulations, like chest of a lion and lashes of a cow.
The Royal Kumari will appear, from time to time, on the balcony in the inner courtyard of her home. The architecture of the palace was supported everywhere with long stakes of wood, again a reminder of the 2015 earthquake. But it was still rich with intricate designs and beautiful with carvings of deities, beasts and warriors. We waited patiently, all cameras put away, our empty hands in full view.
She came surrounded by her watchful attendants; small and so vulnerable looking with pouty little lips downturned in bemusement. She looked like a doll in her ceremonious clothing. She gazed at us solemnly. And then, she was carried away.
Back at the hotel, I was ready to shower, share some scotch, and simmer through my impressions. Janet, an intrepid American woman, recruited Katrina from Australia and myself for a quick (so we thought) trip to a local store she had seen on Facebook.
The Local Women’s Handicraft shop, started by Nasreen Sheikh, was a fair-trade textile and handicraft collective in Kathmandu, focused on empowering and educating disadvantaged women. The three of us piled into a cab and away we went into the night.
Ten minutes later our driver admitted that he was lost. We were now crawling through tight lanes and dark pathways, working against the tide, shoe horning our way through people, animals, scooters, bikes and van buses.
Janet sprang into action locating the number of the shop on her phone. We arrived less than five minutes later and Nasreen was outside waving and smiling.
It was such a little “hole in the wall.”
We had a great time listening to Nasreen’s story, admiring the beauty of the many handmade items for sale, and of course, buying, buying, buying. I think she kept the shop open late for us.
The images of that night crowd collide in bursts of sepia-hued flashes; a blur of people and vehicles square dancing in unpredictable patterns, erratic clusters of stalls and shops in pale pools of light, contrasting with dark narrow side streets.
A year later, a certain shade of orange, a flight of pigeons, a swath of fluttering prayer flags can still transport me there.