Roaming in Kathmandu
Today I’m leaving Nepal after nearly two months of wonderful adventures. As opposed to gracefully fading away, however, the last four days after returning from Bhaktapur have been exceptionally hectic. Not only were there several interesting historical and cultural sites that I wanted to visit in Kathmandu, but I had agreed to do several talks during the last week of my visit. Thus the last four days have been anything but slow as Prem and I have been trying to squeeze in both sets of requirements. Actually as I sit here and start writing this blog post, I can barely remember what I did four days ago, we have been that busy!
We returned to Kathmandu on the 27th . I had some shopping to do to prepare for the next leg of my journey and the afternoon of the 27th was one of the few free moments available. Most importantly I was in need of some new footwear as I was departing company with my beloved hiking boots, along with some other items I no longer needed. Before leaving Kathmandu I planned to ship home the boots, my sleeping bag and the winter clothes I had brought with me for trekking. My next stop, Thailand, a hot and humid climate, is no place for down jackets. Prem took me to some of the local shopping areas where I could find a reasonable pair of tennis shoes to replace my boots. We also looked at Pashima shawls, a popular gift item from Nepal. The trip was successful enough that I felt a little less anxious about being able to finish my list.
The rhythm of the next few days was fairly constant- dividing the time between sightseeing and the lectures I had agreed to present. Early in the morning on the 28th, around 6:30 am, Prem, a young lady he brought along who was the cousin of a friend, and I set off for the Swayambhu Temple. This is popularly known as “the monkey temple” but that name is not favored by the locals as the temple is not dedicated to monkeys, they just inhabit the place. It was an approximately 45 minute walk to the temple, which sits on top of a hill offering wonderful views of all of Kathmandu. The 233 steps leading to the temple complex were easy compared to the other vertical climbs I had earlier experienced in Nepal. Even though it was fairly early, the city was alive with people moving around, sidewalk vendors setting out their wares, people hauling things around, and most importantly, similarly to Bhaktapur, people at the local temples and shrines at their morning devotions. It is amazing how many local shrines, temples, and devotional spaces there are in the city of Kathmandu. It is not obvious during the day hours, but in the mornings when people are performing their rituals, it becomes evident that these holy sites are on almost every corner. I highly recommend that anyone coming to Kathmandu get up early and wander around the city—it is a very living cultural experience.
Climbing the stairs we passed a constant stream of people coming and going. At the top was quite a crowd, mainly locals but some tourists scattered here and there. Over the next few days as we visited more Buddhist sites I would see the crowds grow larger and larger because May 30 was a day of celebration of the Buddha’s birthday, the final day of a month long celebration of the Buddha. Furthermore, for the Tibetan branch of Buddhism, his birth day, his day of enlightenment and that of his death all occur on the same date, making the 30th a very important day for those in that belief system. Anyone performing devotions at this auspicious time receives much merit. Consequently during the last week of May, as the 30th grew nearer, people were flocking to the temples. Already at 7 am as we stood on the temple grounds at the top of the long, steep stairway, were a significant number of people circumambulating (clockwise!) the main stupa. Several monks were performing rituals off to the side and a group of musicians were performing devotional songs. Unlike the group that I saw in Bhaktapur, which were all men, this group was co-ed. The complex had many different shrines and smaller stupas targeting different objects of devotion and they were all busy. True to its popular name, monkeys were roaming freely, both on the ground and above, basically all over the place. But in residence as well were a plethora of dogs and a large flock of pigeons. The pigeons were well fed as people would buy corn and rice to feed them although sometimes the monkeys would interfere. It really was amazing to be at such a special place at such a special time!
As the morning wore on the crowd became a bit thinner as people left to go to work. Eventually it was time to return to the hotel to get prepared for the afternoon talk I was scheduled to give at a local Buddhist Monastery school; a co-ed school whose students consist of both lay people and monks and nuns. But the most important feature of the school is that the children, who are from poor mountain families, attend free of charge. As the school was located near the famous “Great Buddha Stupa” I had an opportunity to get a glimpse of this amazing religious site as we navigated through the crowds after exiting our taxi. The stupa is the largest Buddha stupa in the world and a major place of devotion for the Tibetan heiritage of Buddhism. There too, even though it was only the 28th and early afternoon, I found a healthy crowd of people walking clockwise around the structure. We passed quickly by the stupa, however, as we had to get to the school. I would have more time with the stupa at a later.
I enjoyed talking to the students- I always enjoy talking to students! Before the talk started, I finally got to meet another “friend of a friend” who I had some email correspondence with before arriving in Nepal, an Everest sherpa, recently summitted in April for the second time. After the talk it was great to see the kids crowded around him too, pelting him with questions about climbing Mt. Everest. They learned a lot that afternoon, I think. Afterwards a group of us went for tea over at one of the cafes surrounding the stupa so I had another opportunity to watch the circumambulating crowds before departing.
I was delighted to discover the following day that we were returning to the same area with time to spare for exploration of the stupa and environs. It was early afternoon when we arrived and again a large crowd was circling, even compared to the day before. It was obvious that people came from distant lands to participate in this ceremony as a huge crowd of orange-capped Chinese walked by chanting. Prem and I did a few rotations ourselves, ascended to the next level, did a few more, then decided to select one of the many roof top restaurants surrounding the stupa, have a drink, and watch the activity. We had an hour or so to kill before we had to be at a local hotel for my next speaking engagement, a discussion about science and Buddhism with a small group of people interested in both.
The discussion turned out to be very enjoyable as it was extremely informal and very conversational, centering on a sharing of perspectives and thoughts rather than an attempt to reach absolute conclusions. I was also thrilled to learn that we were going to dinner at one of the restaurants surrounding the stupa, which was fast becoming my favorite place in Kathmandu. As we returned to the square it was approaching evening, and I was excited to have an opportunity to see the religious rituals in full swing, with people everywhere. According to Prem much merit was also received by being generous at this time so people in need were sitting on the ground near the stupa and from time to time I would witness someone stopping to give money or food. It seemed to happen randomly but I am not sure I watched long enough to establish any patterns. The stupa was beautiful, lights and flowers were strung all around it, giant streamers of prayer flags spread their wings from the top to each corner and there was even an electronic screen dynamically displaying what I was told was some kind of visual mantra. The crowds circling the stupa were huge, spreading way beyond the sidewalk bordering the structure. Watching them from above was like watching one huge living organism snaking around in a circle. It was incredibly interesting and I could have watched for hours, but not wanting to be rude to my hosts, soon settled myself back at the table.
The following day was my last scheduled lecture, a talk at the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology. I had met the chair of the Nepali Astronomical Society several years ago at an International Space Conference and she had asked me to visit the country to lecture. Unfortunately at the time, my then current job kept me too busy to travel so far away. Knowing of my interest in Nepal, however, I kept her card handy and when I established plans to visit the country, I contacted her and offered my time if she was interested. Consequently we set up an event for the 30th, as I preferred to wait until I was finished with most of the my personal travel first. Arriving at the Academy building for my talk, I was very amazed to find out that they had reached out to students all over the country about the event and thus had gathered quite a cross section. Given the conditions of the roads and the problems with traveling by car in Nepal I was hugely impressed that these students, and their teachers, made the trip! It was a busy day, with the program including talks by some of the local technical leaders discussing the Aerospace activities ongoing, presentation of awards to some of the students, presentation of awards to women in science (which I was happy to see!) and then my lecture along with a question and answer session. Everyone was wonderful, I met a lot of great people, and made sure to spend a bit of time with all of the students. I do have to admit, though, I was really tired at the end of the day and ready to have a quiet night.
Prem met met me early the following morning, again at 6:30 am, to walk over to Durbar Square, and as with the square of similar name in Bhaktapur, a UNESCO World Heiritage site and the location of many shrines and temples. Also like the one in Bhaktapur, it was significantly affected by the earthquake and many of the buildings were either totally destroyed, had some amount of rubble around them, or had braces holding up walls. There were only a few that remained completely untouched and intact. The state of devastation did not deter the morning devotional crowd, however, as usual, I saw many people attending to the temples and shrines. Again I noticed that there were not that many tourists out and about—people really do not know what they are missing!!!! Prem had informed me that we were going to have tea with a Buddhist nun that morning, something I agreed to readily, and after touring the square, off we went. What I soon found out, when we arrived, that this was not just any nun, but the longest serving Buddhist nun alive in Nepal, at 85, highly revered at home and abroad. Wow! She wanted to learn more about my experiences and how I came to have such an affinity for Buddhism. I also found out, when we arrived, that several members of the local community were interested, so I ended up doing another lecture. Since I am good on the fly it was no problem especially as the request came from such a special person.
All in all it was a busy, but amazing and special series of days.
We were on the move, both by foot and taxi, so much over the past four days that I have seen quite a bit of the city, well beyond the small district of Thamel that most tourists confine themselves to. As we wandered out and about I was constantly looking around and observing. On the way to the Swayambhu Temple we passed an area that I will call “the laundry area”. A woman was washing sheets in what looked like a homemade washing machine- a big metal barrel turning on some kind of axle set-up accompanied by lots of clanking. On the way back, the hanging lines where full of drying sheets and towels. Hilariously enough, because the lines were full, what I assumed were newly washed sheets and towels were also spread out on the ground drying in the sun. As part of the ground they were lying on was composed of dirt, one wonders why anyone would bother washing them in the first place! We traipsed through different neighborhoods, passed shrines that were not obvious unless you saw people worshiping, watched as temporary markets appeared then disappeared just as quickly as the shop keepers arrived to open their store fronts, and observed school children in a myriad of uniforms on the way to school. I was delighted to have one of the few of my remaining open mysteries solved at last. During the course of our travels, I passed three men working on one of the many spaghetti strings of wires strung overhead everywhere. I approached them and politely asked them how they knew what wire went where and which one to work on. They smiled and informed me that they marked the wires with different colors as well as their company’s name. So there is a system, of sorts. Good to know!
I have to say good-bye to Nepal, at least for now. It has been a wonderful two months, with new experiences, new friends, and chance to see some amazing parts of the Earth. I am now off to Thailand for a month and am equally excited about what awaits me there. I am going to spend some time in Bangkok hopefully locating some cooking classes and wandering around the city. While I look forward to that, the bulk of my time in the country will be volunteering at an elephant sanctuary; a place of refuge for elephants rescued from abusive situations. Stay tuned!