Kathmandu, Nepal 2010
Kathmandu is a fascinating city to visit. A patchwork quilt of faith, religion, tradition, superstition, – it offers a link with the past, but is also a dynamic city living fully in the present moment. A city of temples, shrines and statues; a stroll down the narrow streets of the old city will reveal markets, “toles”(1), “bahals”(2), and “bahil”(3). It’s a glorious mix of ancient and modern, faith and religion intertwined with the standard business of day to day living. Relics several centuries old are dotted around the squares and streets. Anywhere else these treasures would be behind glass, protected in a museum; here they merit scarcely a glance and are just part of the tapestry of normal everyday life.
At busy traffic intersections crowded with cycle rickshaws and motorbikes people circle shrines, and light butter lamps. Among the spice vendors and vegetable sellers on Asan Tole, locals walk around the three story Annapurna temple; they touch a coin to their heads, throw it into the temple and ring a bell. Tiered pagoda-like temples, lions and garudas, demons and erotic carvings abound. Inside the temples offer tranquility and are havens of peace. Outside there are shops selling prayer beads, gleaming brass ware, traditional Nepalese dress, terracotta pots, statues and down quilts!
But it’s in the bahal’s that this mix of ancient and present, religion and the mundane is most evident. In the Takan Bahal, dominated by an impressive fourteenth-century stupa, old women squatted on their haunches and scoured cooking pots. In the Musum Bahal men lounged against chaityas (4) reading newspapers. Amongst shrines and small temples an egg seller was the centre of attention with the women of the bahal. Two towers of eggs protected by cardboard cartons hung from either end of a pole he carried over his shoulders. He placed his wares on the ground and laughed with the women as they noisily inspected the eggs and questioned him. Men and women sat outside on straw mats spread on the ground, enjoying the sun. A mother massaged her baby using copious amounts of oil, snatching at his chubby body, she pulled him closer to her as he wriggled forwards. Kids washed their feet under a tap, splashing and pushing. Amongst relics and statues thousands of years old, kids played badminton, raced around on bikes and chalked graffiti. Kathmandu is a living, breathing museum.
Old traditions are maintained as if life has gone on uninterrupted for centuries. In the Kichandra Bahal (one of the oldest in the city dating from 1381) a brass plaque shows a demon known as Guru Mapa taking a naughty child from a woman and eating it! Apparently the demon relented when he was promised an annual feast of buffalo meat. Another plaque shows him sitting down and tucking into a big pot of food. To this day every year during the festival of Holi, the inhabitants of Itum Bahal (Kichandra Bahal is part of this larger courtyard) sacrifice a buffalo to Guru Mapa on the banks of the Vishnumati River, cook it in the courtyard in the afternoon, and in the middle of the night carry it in cauldrons to a tree on the Tundikhel parade ground where the demon is thought to live.
Some beliefs border on superstition. At a busy crossroads on a corner a lump of wood has thousands of coins nailed to it. These are offerings to the toothache god – represented by a little statue in the lump of the wood. A prayer at the nearby Ugratara Temple is thought to be good for the eyesight.
Kathmandu is a huge melting pot. Hindu and Buddhist religions overlap and intermingle. At Bodhnath Tibetan refugees spin prayer wheels and circumnavigate the huge stupa. At the Seto Machhendranath temple there is even a very European-looking female statue. Surrounded by candles she boldly faces the temple. She’s probably just a European import that’s been given a place amongst the huge pantheon of gods. It seems anything is possible, everything is acceptable.
Kathmandu, a blend of past and present that co-exists beautifully.
(1) tole- a street or quarter of a town, sometimes used to refer to a square.
(2) Bahal- a Buddhist monastery courtyard.
(3) Bahil- courtyard with accomodation.
(4) chaitya – small stupa, which usually contains a mantra rather than a Buddhist relic.