NICHOLAS CHRISOSTOMOU SCRATCHES BELOW THE SURFACE OF THE NEPALESE CAPITAL AND IS REWARDED WITH A UNIQUELY SPIRITUAL AND CULTURAL VACATION EXPERIENCE
Unusually for a cover story I am caveating this article at the outset, since visiting Kathmandu is not for the faint hearted, inexperienced travellers, first time visitors to Asia or those who have never before experienced a third world country, which the Nepalese capital is largely reminiscent of at the present time. Whilst the countryside and Himalayan foothills just outside the city are overtly lush, green and utterly spectacular, you need to actively scratch below the surface of Kathmandu to uncover the city’s riches, many of which are essentially hidden in plain sight.
Even on a fine weather day, the streets of the Nepalese capital are pretty treacherous, and in parts seemingly unpassable, especially to an uninitiated Westerner. Litter is everywhere, and it’s not uncommon to see trash piled up beside the road because rubbish bins are few and far between. Except for Saturday which is the locals’ weekly day off, roads are heaving and the traffic routinely slow-moving. On a weekend night, don’t be surprised to sit in a log jam for what seems like an eternity, just to travel a few miles in a taxi.
The best way to get around is undoubtedly on two wheels. Kathmandu’s air is polluted and rife with dust, especially when it hasn’t rained for a while. Yet, whilst all of these failings have the makings of a decidedly inhospitable destination, if one invests the time to truly explore the Nepalese capital, one is rewarded with an intense spiritual and cultural experience, combining centuries of fascinating history, deep religion and glorious traditions.
Kathmandians are warm, honest, loyal and friendly people. Visitors are almost certainly safer on the streets of Kathmandu than in New York. No one will pickpocket your bag while you’re looking at a temple, for instance. The local cuisine is delicious, original and affordable, especially momos, which are essentially bite-size dumplings with a meat or vegetable filling, accompanied by a spicy dipping sauce. And Nepalese handicrafts are of an exceptionally high standard, especially textiles. Indeed, Nepalese cashmere and woven fabrics are amongst the best in the world, and local factories are routinely used by numerous high-end European fashion houses, including the likes of Chanel and Lagerfeld. Yes, your US$1,000 cashmere hoodie was most likely made in Nepal!
As the stepping stone for literally every single Everest climber who has attempted to conquer the world’s tallest mountain, Kathmandu is experienced in meeting the needs of explorers and adventurers, yet, uniquely, hasn’t been ruined by tourists. There are very few capitals left in the world which are still unspoilt and authentic. Kathmandu is one of them, making visiting it a unique and all-encompassing experience for those willing to take the plunge. And plunge in head fist you must, to fully understand the city, appreciate Nepalese culture and get the best out of your visit.
Located at the crossroads of ancient trading and pilgrimage routes, in the fertile Kathmandu Valley, more than 20,000 feet below the poetic snow-capped Himalayan peaks, the Nepalese capital oozes countless exotic connotations. Before I flew to Nepal, I anticipated exploring a remote and fabled kingdom, once isolated by geography and political upheaval. I expected mystery and mysticism, not least in a city which was founded in 723 AD. But I did not expect the pollution and traffic jams. And I certainly did not expect a corpse.
“The feet of the body are in the water so the soul can be released into the Bagmati River, a tributary of the sacred Ganges, and after the cremation his ashes will also be swept into the river,” Shree, my guide, explained to me, unaware of my slight uneasiness. I was standing within the Pashupatinath temple complex, one of the holiest in the world, revered and worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists. The scene which was unfolding before me was surreal. A dead male body was being attended to by various family members who were preparing him for imminent cremation. They were washing the corpse, with a little difficulty it seemed, since it was wrapped in a sarong and other garments. His feet were in the river. “One must be cleansed before entering a different plane” Shree commented. Whilst a public cremation was about to happen in front of me, on the river bank opposite, to my right, the set-up was beginning for a ritual candle ceremony, Aarati, a celebration of a completely different kind. Around me were hundreds of people, perhaps a few thousand actually, for I couldn’t see far as dusk was beginning to fall. But I could feel the people and their intense anticipation.
Bagmati divides Pashupati into two parts, with the main temple on one side of the holy river, and the location of Aarati on the other. Pashupati’s Aarati is a nightly ritual of worship, in which light from wicks soaked in ghee (purified butter) is offered to God. During the ritual, three priests move their oil lamps, lanterns and other religious icons in circular motions whilst chanting sacred mantras. Meanwhile, on the opposite river bank, the corpse, by now covered in bright orange flower garlands and layers of garments, was being carried to the ghat, stacked with wood and ready for the cremation to begin. All the while monkeys scrapped in the background, jumping from stupa to stupa, occasionally their crazy screams heard above the priests’ chanting. A young girl tried to sell me a necklace with a mandala charm, but when I said ‘no’ she moved on to her next target rather than harangue me. Further down the river, I could see women washing clothes and whacking them dry against rocks, and water buffalo wandering along the muddy banks. Monkeys splashed. Dogs drank. The entire scene awakened senses in me that had hitherto been dormant, probably because so much is handed to us on a plate when we travel to foreign lands these days.
I literally stood in the same spot for more than two hours, without so much as a sip of water, so entranced was I by the scene which was unfolding around me. When the funeral pyre was eventually lit, the body was being consumed and huge flames began to leap towards the sky, at the same time as the Aarati priests continued to sing their mesmerising songs and dance with their burning lanterns, it felt like the tableau was complete: celebrations of life and death were happening concurrently in the same place. As I reluctantly walked away, night had well and truly fallen by now, and huge smoke plumes from the burning corpse were trailing into the black sky.
I have seen a lot of things on my travels around the world, but this intensely spiritual, spellbinding spectacle was one which I will almost certainly never forget. Life and death. Light and dark. Celebration and mourning. Everything happened on the banks of the Bagmati that night, and what I saw and experienced is the essence of Kathmandu – a city of great contradictions, but, through it all, great belief, trust, love and spirituality. “Watch where you walk,” Shree cautioned me, stepping around dog excrement.
The Malla Dynasty was Kathmandu’s ruling family from 1201 until 1769. Upon the death of King Yaksha Malla in 1482, a rivalry developed among his three sons, so each took a portion of the Kathmandu Valley, creating three kingdoms and independent city-states now known as Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. The competition among the subsequent monarchs of the three cities continued until the Mallas were defeated, and the country reunified in 1769. Whilst in power, the kings of each city created a durbar (palace) and square, and each attempted to outdo the other in the building of their lavish temples, ornate shrines and opulent palaces. Today, the three durbar squares, all within a few miles of each other, have been designated as UNESCO world heritage sites. Whilst the devastating earthquake of 25th April 2015 decimated much of these beautiful historic centres, the rebuilding of Kathmandu’s temples is proceeding at a rapid pace.
In the sixties and early seventies, most visitors to the city congregated in Kathmandu Durbar Square, the natural center of the capital. The majority of these travellers had trekked the hippie trail, enticed by marijuana and hashish which was legal back then. So popular was this area, that a nearby road is still known as Freak Street, and a temple dedicated to Shiva, where those high on cannabis and hash routinely preached peace, love and flower power, is popularly known as the Hippie Temple. Nowadays the freaks have vanished – either grown up or gone to Goa – but the names have stuck.
At the southern limits of Kathmandu Durbar Square, in the adjoining square of Basantapur – once the royal elephant stables – you will find a bustling flea market during the day. Every morning, vendors unload their wares from crates and arrange them on mats or makeshift tables. Among the many items for sale are elaborate antique locks that vendors swear hail from “a very old temple”, together with countless “singing bowls” – essentially metal bowls which produce a vibrating hum when the rim is rubbed with a wooden wand. Whilst such bowls are used by Buddhist monks during meditation, those sold in flea markets are generally of a poor quality.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by the variety and number of imposing temples and shrines throughout Kathmandu, especially in the interconnected courtyards of the ancient royal palace complex of the former Kathmandu Kingdom. Sadly, the oldest and largest building in the complex, Kasthamandap, dating from the 14th century, was utterly destroyed by the earthquake. According to legend, wood from a single tree had been used in its construction. Rebuilding this iconic Kathmandu landmark is a slow and difficult process. Yet there are others, still standing, in the same complex, which are open to tourists and worth visiting, not least to see their ornately and intricately carved woodwork.
When moving around Kathmandu, as far as possible I travelled on the back of a motorcycle, with my trusty guide Manish skilfully weaving our two wheels in and out of the dreadful traffic. As long as one is equipped with a mask and helmet this is by far the quickest way to get from A to B, but is only doable when it’s not raining. On the morning of my car ride to Patan, the 3-mile journey took over an hour even though we avoided rush hour. Bouncing about on the back seat of a car, traversing broken roads on spent shock absorbers, with exhaust fumes pouring through the driver’s open window to a backdrop of non-stop horns blaring, is not a lot of fun I can tell you. Often I wondered whether it might not have been better to walk, but the pavements in Kathmandu are an assault course of potholes, fornicating stray dogs and cows either ambling across the street or recumbent on the sidewalk. Hence, walking anywhere, apart from short distances, is not recommended.
I was heading to Patan for a guided tour of its chaityas (miniature stone stupas), a bespoke experience organised by Hyatt Regency Kathmandu to give visitors a real feel for the city’s 1,500 years of Buddhist architecture. Upon my arrival in Patan, the chaos of the city’s roads gave way to the calm of the ancient city. Predominantly Buddhist Patan still goes by the ancient name of Lalitpur – City of Beauty. Kathmandu really comes to life in the backstreets and hidden squares of Patan, where candy-coloured houses, spanning numerous architectural generations, sit side-by-side with temples, chaityas, monuments and other altars to Buddha.
It is not hard to see why Patan was originally named Lalitpur. Here a gentler pace of life obviously prevails. The streets are a riot of smells: turmeric, cardamom, incense, ginger, marigolds, fresh meat, fried onion and cow dung. Shop windows display tacky golden deities to attract the eyes of tourists. Courtyard upon courtyard, interspersed with beautiful squares – all kept tidy and litter-free by their residents – yield an array of chaityas of varying size, age and levels of decoration. Many courtyards echo with the tap of hammers from bronze casters hand crafting statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (goddesses). Most of the chaityas I saw were simply stunning. Starting at Gabaha Square and ending at Lunkhusi, the two-kilometre walk took just a few hours, yet in those 120 minutes I chanced upon more captivating Nepalese architecture than I had seen during the previous four days.
Before the earthquake, Patan’s Durbar Square was reputedly the most spectacular of all Kathmandu, a veritable Disneyland of temples lining the left-hand side of the square, opposite the royal palace stretching for hundreds of feet down the other side. The palace fared reasonably well, but heartbreakingly most of the temples were reduced to rubble. However, amidst before and after images affixed to the hordes of scaffolding which surround each fallen temple, phoenix-like they are rising from the piles of rubble. Typically upbeat of the Nepalese people, my guide quipped “you’d better take photos of these temples now, because in a few years’ time all the scaffolding will be gone.” This positive-thinking and natural appreciation of their architectural heritage is the lifeline of Kathmandu’s residents, and one of the reasons why visitors, like me, can easily forgive the dog shit and broken roads for the possibility of a deep, meaningful and inherently cultural travel experience.
There is much to see, feel, touch, taste and experience in Kathmandu – you just need to take the time to search it out and revel in it. Whilst this is not something 21st century travellers are routinely au fait with, for those adventurous enough to visit the second poorest nation in Asia, the visual rewards are huge, memories truly unforgettable and spiritual experiences utterly unique.