From my first steps in Kathmandu, I was beset by Hindu mystics and living goddesses in a modern day country trying to find itself.
On my first morning in Kathmandu, I sat in a narrow lane beside a nondescript cafe. Having spent most the day previous breathing recycled air in a pressurised tube thousands of feet above the earth, I was dehydrated and disoriented. During the short walk from my hotel, I felt as if I was floating. I peered through the haze of my half-firing neurons onto the thick screen of dust and pollution that choked much of the city.
Awaiting the life-giving elixir of coffee, I stared blankly out onto the street behind the veil of my sunglasses. Three men turned into the lane and began to walk in my direction. The closest wore a dusty orange robe, his gaunt face smeared with a white ash that flecked his long dreadlocks and unruly beard. A blood-red stripe marked his brow, while the dark lines that underscored the man’s eyes suggested that he too was peering through a veil.
Though I had never seen one in the flesh, I recognised this man as a Sādhu: a religious ascetic who has dedicated his life to attaining liberation from the eternal cycle of death and rebirth to which we are all condemned. These are the life-deniers who seek to strip away the illusion of this reality through purification of the senses. Their days are filled with a strict regime of meditation and renunciation, dwelling in caves or temple grounds or else perpetually wandering between holy sites.
The man trained his eyes on me as he walked slowly up the laneway. In one hand he carried a rustic staff. The other clutched a ceremonial bowl for collecting alms. When he reached my table he offered his bowl with a low cry. Being too vague of mind to interact meaningfully with the man I shook my head with a smile. He imperceptibly registered my response and continued to drift up the cobblestone lane with his companions.
This was my welcome to Kathmandu, a city of delightful chaos, colours and noise. The power of religious ritual can easily be felt here; its pulse permeates every aspect of people’s lives. Equally noticeable are the dynamics of Nepal’s complex caste system, which provides a web of intricate rules and regulations for the maintenance of social order.
Some aspects of the caste system have recently come under siege by the country’s political class. Nepal’s new constitution, passed in September of last year, formalises the country’s transition from a conservative Hindu monarchy towards a secular, democratic republic. Considering some of the extreme injustices the caste system perpetuates, I can only view this aspiration in a positive light. Challenging such deeply embedded prejudices is sure to be difficult. How the nation navigates this issue in the coming years will be of profound interest.
Like most tourists I was staying in Thamel, a warren of cramped, dusty and footpath-less lanes lined with a multitude of restaurants, bars, and trekking companies, with vendors selling everything from statues, singing-bowls, scimitars and traditional Tibetan thangkas. I had heard much about the intensity of the city, so I was surprised to find the streets rather muted. While motorbikes, small cars or hustlers occasionally approached, congestion was generally lacking.
Nepal’s tourism industry has taken some heavy hits in the last year: the earthquakes that rocked the nation in 2015 has scared many travellers away. When recovery efforts were hampered by a brutal five-month blockade on the Indian border, the country was further starved of much needed fuel, medical supplies and tourism revenue. With civil unrest still a real possibility, I can understand why so many travellers chosen to play it safe, but this only increased the suffering of the Nepalese people.
Sufficiently caffeinated, I walked the streets a while before retreating to my hotel’s rooftop. With Gorkha beer in hand, I sat and watched the blazing red sun die behind the mountains to a ceaseless chorus of car horns. The sprawl of the city is impressive – it seems to offer a limitless array of complex shapes and structures that forego uniformity and leave the mind reeling. There is no doubt that this is a metropolis that has swelled organically, though the thick and ever-present clouds of pollution haunched over Kathmandu suggest that urban planning is not without its benefits. (Quick fact: a 2014 study from Yale names Nepal as the second most polluted country on earth, beating only Bangladesh.)
Before I called it a night I wandered to the eastern edge of Thamel to get a feel for a more residential district. Stepping out onto the main road I felt as though I had been transported into some kind of dystopian underworld. The vast majority of stores were shut up for the night, offering little but cold roller doors. A handful of lights dimly lit the street, and in those weak beacons, a film of dust tinged the streetscape a sepia brown. Along one side of the road ran a string of crumbling ruins, likely destroyed in the earthquake and never rebuilt. The other was marked with dingy local eateries and late-night fruit stalls where women sat by the road preparing bunches of produce while their children danced and played.
Choking on the dust that filled my sinuses, I returned home.
The next morning I sat in another sidewalk cafe awaiting breakfast. I cast my eye over my surroundings as an eagle circled overhead. Framed by prayer flags, it circumambulated effortlessly on huge wings, scanning the ground below with its powerful eyes. An Indian raga played softly in the background; a soulful vocal melody matched by a cello-like instrument with drums pattering and bubbling behind. The prayer flags gently waved in the cool morning breeze.
Before long, the raga increased in intensity: a sitar rapidly shimmered while drums filled the air with more and more rapid strikes. The music had to compete with the nearby sounds of construction: the dirty grind of a combustion engine, steel saws chewing through material, and staccato hammering upon wood. Despite the volume, the din had already become imperceptible to me and I had to make a concerted effort to hear it. These sounds echo constantly throughout Thamel as new hotels are constantly erected, or older buildings make much needed repairs.
As a woman floats by in a black and emerald sari, a waiter informs me that they will be unable to supply me with a second coffee due to another power outage. It is time to move on.
A few scenes stick with me from those first few days in Kathmandu. Certainly the first is the choking fog of pollution, and the grotesque taste of dust that clogs up your sinuses and coats your tongue.
The second are the calm calls of street hustlers of Thamel. They are well-practised in their craft of separating tourists with their money, plying a range of natural conversation starts that, while unobtrusive and lacking in force, are difficult to escape all the same.
Across the city, I saw scores of families living in crude tents. These “temporary” shelters have been sanctioned by the government and are supported by various aid organisations. The notion is that once their homes are repaired, these people are to leave the tent for good. I doubt whether many have homes to return to at all.
From my hotel in southern Thamel, I observed touching scenes of everyday life: a mother washing clothes on an outdoor terrace, an old man playing with his granddaughter; a small girl terrorising her older sister with a plastic sword; a man contemplating the cityscape with his dog. The lack of privacy and space is a marked difference to my hometown of Sydney, where personal space – both physical and psychological – is demanded by most.
Above all, I cannot forget the beautiful architecture from the city’s distant past as revealed in the temples of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur.
There is a certain magic to Kathmandu that is hard to articulate. It is a region home to no less than nine living goddesses. These are the Kumari, pre-pubescent girls who are regarded as manifestations of the supreme female Buddhist deity Vajradevi, or the embodiment of the Hindu goddess Taleju, and are appointed through a process that is as arduous as it is complex and esoteric.
Ahh, but I am getting ahead of myself. An exploration of the ancient sites and beliefs in the Kathmandu Valley will come another time.