Oct 30th, 2009 - Recently, I have spent more time trying to plan activities than actually engaging in them. It has a tendency to make one bonkers. I suppose this is unavoidable since it is difficult to know where I will end up and when, so administrative time is a necessary evil. Still, walking around the streets of Thamel in Kathmandu for three days straight will dampen the spirits of even the most enthusiastic globetrotters.
It’s sad when street hawkers start recognizing you and when you enter so many trekking gear shops you actually start suggesting price strategies to some of the more extortionist vendors. Then there is the traffic. Incorrigible young males relish the idea of tearing ass down narrow alleys and stopping only if absolutely essential (i.e. a large inanimate objects obstruct their path). It irks me. At the risk of sounding homicidal I’ve fantasized about purchasing a trekking pole and using it to clothesline folks I deem dangerous to society right off their motorcycles. Is that wrong? For vehicles with four wheels I have a different strategy: Fill balloons with chicken shit and decorate the windshields of those putting all of our lives in danger. Is that wrong?
Many of the tourists make me giggle. They are an eclectic bunch. If I were to combine the various personas into one sort of Franken-tourist it would be wearing one brand new Gortex boot (left foot), one river sandal (right foot), knock-off Coolmax socks, zip-off leg windproof pajama-like capri pants with a pair of nylon North Face shorts pulled over them, a kick ass fanny pack with a secret zipper, polypro shirt, hurricane-proof jacket, a yak wool mini-purse around the shoulder, a funky multi-colored ‘look at me I’m in Nepal’ hat, and a super sleek space age backpack with enough room for a small yeti. This mutant would have a tattoo of a Garuda or some other mythical beast of arcane significance, probably sport dreadlocks, and I’m sure have one or more body parts pierced. Of course, they would have a camera worth more than my life with an attached lens possessing enough magnification to see the moons of Saturn. They would also have absolutely no idea how to use it.
So in an effort to tear myself away from the commercialized nuthouse that is Thamel I went for a stroll in Kathmandu, lingered at a Buddhist stupa, and meandered my way through Durbar Square, the traditional center of the city.
|I'm no electrician but...........|
This area (Durbar Square) was designated a Unesco World Heritage Monument in 1979. It is where kings were crowned, legitimized, and also from where they administered the kingdom (in Hanuman Palace to be exact) up until a different building was deemed the official palace in another part of town. The square contains numerous temples, holy sites, and sacred buildings. It is an ideal place to sit upon some of the terraced steps of a centrally located temple and watch life unfold.
|Part of Durbar Sqaure|
After watching and photographing a man hand wash a statute of a Garuda for much longer than would be considered normal I decided to hire one of the local denizens peddling guide services on the street. I met him outside the Kumari Bahal (House of the Living Goddess).
The story of the Kumari is a most intriguing tale. The Hindu religion is rife with gods and goddesses and it is not uncommon for particular deities to have more than one incarnation. For example Vishnu (the preserver of the universe in Hindu lore) can appear in ten different forms: fish, tortoise, boar, half-man half lion, a badass dwarf (no joke), badass priest, a fellow named Rama that helped the monkey god rescue his wife from an evil king, a jovial and fun-loving cowherd, the Buddha himself (Buddhists are not so hip on this suggestion), and Kalki the destroyer (Hindus are still waiting for this manifestation but are not in much of a hurry as this will signal the end of the world).
The big dog of Nepali (i.e. Hindu) gods is Shiva, the creator and destroyer. If you are going to piss off a god look elsewhere as his ‘not so nice’ manifestations are terrifying. Shiva has a consort (wife, hoochie mama, etc,) named Parvati, the great goddess. Apparently, their relationship was based on sex and it was Parvati that took control under the sheets (nice). Well, as you might guess, she also has many forms to include Uma, Guari, Kali, or Durga. Kali is her fearsome face and is at the center of Nepal’s most important festival, Dasain. It is during this 15 day extravaganza that legions of goats and buffaloes are ceremoniously sacrificed in Kali’s honor (probably want to stay on her good side as well. Not exactly a teddy bear). I’ve read that even the national airline sacrifices a goat for every one of its aircraft on the appropriate day!
Many years ago Taleju (another incarnation of Pervati) would regularly visit her friend the king and they would play dice together (any goddess that gambles and likes being ‘king’ in the bedroom is ok in my book). Well, Taleju’s beauty was just too much for the hornball monarch and it was not long before he began to make lustful advances. She wanted none of it and threatened to withdraw her protection from the valley. However, she softened her stance a bit and instead told him that she would appear in the form of a young girl that could then be worshiped by future generations.
So there has been a Kumari living in a red brick three story building across from the old palace in Durbar Square ever since. Like the Dalai Lama the current incarnation of the goddess must be identified among the masses and only young prepubescent girls will do.
Once the girl has her first period (the shedding of blood signifies impurity) this signifies the goddess's departure from the body and the search must begin anew. How does one qualify for Kumari-hood? It ain’t easy. You have to meet 32 physical requirements. Some of these are rather bizarre. Besides the staples (perfect teeth, well proportioned face and body, lack of blemishes or imperfections) the girl must also have feet and hands of a duck (a duck with hands?), chest of lion, thighs of a deer, neck like a conch shell, and the eyelashes of a cow (seeeeeexy!).Her body should resemble a banyan tree and have a round head with a cone-shaped top (I found these requirements in “Love and Death in Kathmandu: A Strange Tale of Murder” by Amy Willesee and Mark Whittaker).
Possessing the required physical attributes is a start but not quite enough. When candidates have been identified they are brought, one by one, into a darkened room decorated with 108 severed buffalo heads where men donning terrifying masks dance around like lunatics. If the girl remains calm and collected she must be the goddess. If she screams, cries, and shits her pants she is out.
So there I was standing in the courtyard of the house of the Kumari listening to my guide explain all this. The girl is taken from her family and placed in the care and guardianship of caretakers designated for the job. It is possible to see the Kumari when she appears at a window on the third storey at a specified time (4 pm I believe). No pictures allowed. While living in the house she is treated as well as you might expect a living goddess to be treated. While she resides in the house her feet may never touch the earth and she only leaves the palace during festival time, Indra Jatra to be exact.
As you can imagine the transition back to mortal status is often not so seamless. Imagine one day you are a goddess and the next go back to being a normal 11 year old girl once again subject to the whim of your parents. Many are embittered by the experience and wish the goddess had chosen to reside elsewhere.
|Carved wooden relief above entrance to Kumari House courtyard|
|Placed at the foot of the entrance these prevent evil spirits from entering Kumari House|
|Courtyard of Kumari House|
I also visited a temple known as Kasthamandap (this is where Kathmandu acquired its name) which was built sometime around the 12th century and is reputed to be constructed from a single tree. Inside the temple is a firehouse-like pole made from the root of lentil and believed to possess healing properties. Rub your back three times against it and no more back pain. Shimmy your way to the top and kiss neck pain goodbye. Just pick an ailing body part and rub. I did.
On the northern side of this temple lies another small shrine, Ashok Binayak, dedicated to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of prosperity and wisdom. This shrine is small but extremely revered. Make an offering, ring the bells, and your upcoming journey will be a safe one.
While I stood there I witnessed women burning small bundles of specially woven cotton. Folks come here to make such an offering in order to give thanks for a wish that has been granted or prayer that has been answered.
My guide said something amusing while standing in front of a holy statute of Hanuman, the monkey god that helped defeat an evil king. According to my escort the god had taken a vow of celibacy which means ‘no marriage, no sex, no hand practice'. I think they should carve a set of enormous blue balls on the statue to signify his sacrifice. Just a suggestion.
This is a catch all for miscellaneous tidbits that belong in earlier posts but slipped my mind at the time of writing. I suppose I could rewind and edit but what the hell fun would that be?
In the first days of my recent rafting trip we came along a group of villagers standing at the bank of the river while watching a pile of burning wood near the water’s edge. We thought this a bit strange until we realized it was a funeral pyre and the folks in attendance were saying goodbye to a member of their family.
I’ve read about it but had yet to witness it. After the fire subsides whatever remains is pushed into the river. Kind of makes you think twice after inadvertently gulping a few sips of river water while negotiating a rapid.
I mentioned how some villagers came to our campsite and initiated us to the festival of Dewali with singing and dancing. Although we later determined that they were actually singing ‘Doh-so-reee’ (or something similar) we were originally under the mistaken, if not altogether ridiculous belief, that they were repeating ‘Dancy Day’ over and over again while banging on drums. Yes, because Nepali villagers would chanting a traditional festival hymn in English. Duh.
One of our guides seemed to confirm our Dancy Day conclusion when questioned but clearly misunderstood the question. I guess if you don’t comprehend the question the best answer is usually ‘yes’.
We heard the low beat of drums and the constant repetition of the phrase most of the way down the river and throughout the day and night. Their devotion to the music was astounding. I suppose ingesting large amounts of rakshi (Nepali moonshine) helped fuel the fervor. My friend Alex found the words to the ‘Dancy Day’ dance remix and was kind enough to pass it along:
Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day, Dancy Day..... Repeat until the Raksi is gone.
Random Mental Swirlings
This is a repository for ponderings, pontifications, tangents, rants, epiphanies, and any other sorts of profound or maybe not so profound musings. This is where I try to pin down some of the capricious and sometimes obtuse machinations of a mind permeated by the random.
I suppose it is in the details. The unexpected. The seemingly insignificant. Or maybe its not there at all, only in my mind. Without the mystery, the puzzle how mundane it all would be. You walk the narrow frenetic streets of Thamel like the other robots. Their expressions belie their humanity and it all seems so artificial, a contrived reality where each robot behaves according to its programming. And then among the robots you spot a human face, a pretty young woman walking in your direction. Your eyes meet and there is a glitch in the software. The Tin Man just found a heart. You break from the mindless reverie and smile. She smiles back. You somehow see all the beauty in the world in her eyes and for a moment all your troubles and anxieties completely melt away. Mortal tranquility. And then it’s gone and so is she. You want to turn and chase her down, look once more into those eyes, and confirm the telepathic connection, “You see it too, right?” But you don’t. Instead you keep walking while basking in a subtle glow that will shortly fade. Who was she? What does she dream about? You want to see her again but for reasons you cannot explain believe it is better left the way it is: unrequited.
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'Love me or hate me, but spare me your indifference.' -- Libbie Fudim