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Nepal 2014

In and around Kathmandu

NEPAL | Wednesday, 2 April 2014 | Views [482]

I've been thinking of what to write about the principal sights of Kathmandu. A long day tour took us to several Hindu and Buddhist sites and princely relics. These are shabby and less colourful in comparison to the temple and palace splendours of Thailand, but look more accessible and used by the people. You also have the impression that they were built on the back of great hardship, not great wealth, and represent a more sincere representation of labours of faith rather than the profligate flaunting of wealth and ego of the ruling dynasty.

Bhaktapur is half an hour and a world away from Kathmandu. World Heritage listing (and a $15 entry fee) have helped preserve and restore what was once an important city state and now home to some of the finest religious architecture in Nepal. The population is Newari, whose distinct flat features testify to their Northern origins. Bhaktapur sits on the traditional trade route between Tibet and India and its residents stand out against their darker-complexioned, longer-featured compatriots.

Narrow cobblestone streets wind between red-brick and timber buildings - the barracks and warehouses and guild houses and noble homes - that lean into the cobbled streets. One can simply wander freely and stumble upon squares and courtyards with towering temples, statues, cisterns and craft workshops. Small shrines dot the roadsides, daubed in ochre and crimson powders and blackened by centuries of wax smoke. Devotees crouch or prostrate themselves, some leaving small offerings of rice or marigolds and perform a personal ritual of touching, praying and bowing. Unlike some other Heritage sites, Bhaktapur does not feel like a museum, a town in suspended animation. Life and commerce goal on undisturbed in the market stalls, around the squares and water wells.

The cremation ghats of Pashupatinath, on the limpid river that cuts through Kathmandu is another World Heritage site with a famous Hindu temple (closed to non-believers). You notice the funereal smoke long before you reach the river and unconsciously wonder who's fumes you're inhaling. Cremation platforms line the river with small gangs of men shovelling ashes into the water and rebuilding pyres of sturdy logs laid so the next deceased will be supported, which will likely come along immediately.

As Hindus cremate their dead within a few hours, this is a 24/7 service. Such is the activity that at any moment you can see all stages of the last rites being enacted: a wrapped corpse covered in marigolds lying head-to-temple, feet-to-river; another on a slipway at the river being daubed in saffron and crimson powders; a third is being borne along the riverside to the next pyre. On the pyre the eldest son or next surviving male relative uncovers the deceased's face to offer the last drops of sacred water before swaddling the head and sprinkling ghee on the cloth wrappings. Adjacent, the first fire is being applied to the head and feet and under the logs and as the flames catch more logs and straw are added and the attendant priest applies flames appropriately. Three hours later the ashes are shovelled into the river. Higher-placed people are cremated upstream of the lower ranks, presumably to enter cleaner water for the final journey. All the while each body is accompanied by a silent crowd of mourners.

To my unknowing eyes, it all seemed very simple and matter-of-fact, no ceremony or music or speeches or wailing, just a plain ritual. People appeared to look normal without 'graveyard' faces that you might expect. I was reminded that I had witnessed a similar Hindu cremation when I was aged about 7. The elder of the Tamil labourers on our farm in Natal who was the grandfather of our maid, passed away and I was invited to attend. My distinct memory was of his head going "pop" when the flames were most intense. That, and the smell of burning feathers.

Most bizarrely, there is an aged folks home in the temple grounds with a huge and shifting pile of firewood logs outside the entrance. I wondered how the residents feel about seeing and smelling the means of their departure from Earth every day. Perhaps it speaks in ways unfamiliar to us of their acceptance of death as simply a part of Life.

We reached the heights of Swayambhu just before sunset. Tens of thousands of prayer flags festooning the Asian fig trees compete for your attention with the imposing Buddhist temple complex on the hill crown. Kathmandu sprawls in the old lake bed of the valley and fades with the early summer smog into the surrounding hills that emerge like stumps from a swamp. These hills are the foothills of the foothills of the Himalayan ranges. Kathmandu's air quality is at its worst now in the pre-monsoon heat when warm city air is trapped by a layer of cold air falling from the higher elevations. We head by public bus tomorrow to Jiri somewhere in those hills to start the 8-day trek to Lukla.

Tags: bhaktapur, kathmandu, pashupatinath ghats, swayambhu


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