Nepal: Happy New Year 2074!

Having spent a day exploring Kathmandu’s old town, we decided to journey a little further afield, still within the Kathmandu valley but getting slightly more rural each day.
Day 1: the pilgrimage site of Boudha (Bodhnath) and the ancient city of Patan
Day 2: the outskirts of Bhaktapur and its Bisket Jatra festival
Day 3: a walk from rural Namobuddha to Panauti

I’ll tell you a little about each.

THE GREAT BOUDHA STUPA

Nepal’s main religion seems to be a bit of a hybrid. Essentially most people (81%) are Hindu but, because the Buddha (Siddharta Gautama) was born here and due to the influence of Tibetan Buddhists, they respect and honour him too. 9% are Buddhist, 4% Muslim and the rest are ‘other’.

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Boudha (Bodhnath) is a large Buddhist stupa, set within aTibetan community. It’s 43m high and has an area of 6756 square metres. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is considered one of the most significant Buddhist monuments in the world and is a pilgrimage site for many.

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Buddhist monks, western novices and visiting devotees circle clockwise in order to have their prayers answered by the stupa – a wish-granting jewel. Incense offerings are for pure moral conduct, flowers are for ‘excellent human birth’, butter lamps are for wisdom, scented water dispels mental disquiet… the list goes on. They bow their heads to doorways, touching statues and ringing bells.

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As an act of devotion and to gain merit, prayer wheels, filled with up to a million prayers, are spun.

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Prayer flags, in five colours representing fire, water, air, wood and earth (or ether), flutter overhead in the gentle breeze to sanctify the air and pacify the gods.

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And here’s a dog in the shade of a big bell!

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PATAN

Arriving here, we were about ready for some lunch so, similar to back in Kathmandu, we found a spot over-looking the earthquake damaged Durbar Square.

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Wandering around we saw that, again, the buildings were made mainly of brick with intricately carved wooden decorations, balconies and window frames.

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There were statues and shops and scaffolding and buildings under reconstruction.

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A museum gave us a chance to see some well-preserved statues, not covered in offerings and vermillion and mustard-oil sindur.

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One of the nicest hidden parts was the three-storey golden pagoda – nick-named the Golden Temple for obvious reasons.

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BHAKTAPUR AREA

Knowing we’d be desiring a bit of peace and quiet by now, we had booked a semi-rural hotel on a hillside. It had triple-aspect windows and a terrace with distant views of the city over patchwork farmland. Unlike the city with its buildings crammed into every available space, here the houses were spread out, often inhabited yet incomplete, with room for a few cows, goats, flowers and tidy rows of vegetables. We could even hear birdsong!

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Exploring the area we came across the local Hindu temple which was fairly quiet with just a few picnicking families. Caterpillars had made their home on a statue at the entrance.

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Each time someone entered to make puja , they rang bells to alert the gods to their offering.

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Various statues stood facing the main shrine.

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Hot, sleeping dogs flopped in the shade. A young leopard-print-wearing girl, who I think lived there, roamed around, entertaining herself with very little while her grandmother beat a stick on the ground to frighten off the pigeons.

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Afterwards we had a rather hot climb through the village and up a hill to see the view. Unfortunately, as with the whole time we were in Nepal, the hazy weather prevented it really being worth it!

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TIMILSINA FAMILY

Our second dinner invitation was to visit Sakaar’s aunt, uncle and two cousins in a Bhaktapur suburb.

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Unfortunately Dean was pretty ill at this point so I went alone. In some ways, it was a very different experience to the first visit: they collected me in their car; their house was enormous and very modern; and they could all speak English to some extent. The daughter, Riya, goes to a private school where they learn in English so it was great to be able to chat away and ask questions. However in all the important ways, the visit shared a lot similarities with our visit to the Lama house; they too demonstrated incredible Nepali hospitality. I was warmly welcomed with a scarf – yellow this time – and given gifts: bracelets, of the type worn by married women; a necklace; a pot of bindi spots; a brass statue of buddha; and a topi (traditional cap) for Dean.Everyone was friendly, interested and open. The snacks – particularly the pakoras – were tasty (this time I was wise and knew they were just a warm up for the main event!) and the dinner itself was amazing. It was a vegetarian feast of daal, mushroom curry, fried okra, an onion salad, rice, gourd curry, curd and mint sauce with gulab jamun for dessert. I was so full!

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The whole family came to drop me off back to the hotel and, at their insistance, I persuaded Dean to come out a say hello! This led to another invitation for lunch on Saturday before our flight which of course we gladly accepted!

Another unforgettable experience. I’m so grateful to Sakaar’s mum, Sapana, for arranging all this for us.

BISKET JATRA

Our second evening in Bhaktapur was New Year’s Eve! The last day of the year 2073 in the Nepali calendar. Newars, who live in the valley and make up 5% of the country’s population hold Bisket Jatra celebrations. It’s eight nights long and has been celebrated for the last 1400 or so years. It’s important that everything goes well as locals believe this will result in a good harvest.

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We arrived in the packed square at about 5pm. Every elevated structure and all the surrounding buildings were filled with onlookers.

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We found a spot to stand and people-watch for a while.

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A topi-wearing man carried a wooden beam across his shoulders with a heavy-looking metal pot of, I assume (as children participated), water on each end. Revellers approached him and used a brass jug to pour swigs of water into their mouths.

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Other men sold paan – colourful concoctions wrapped in leaves that men buy, chew and then emit jets of red spit onto the ground.

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Further up the densely-packed hill was a (stationary) marching band next to a row of riot police. We’d been warned that things can get violent on these occasions but the crowds seemed very amiable and relaxed with whole families enjoying the atmosphere together.

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Now and then a cheer went up from the crowd. Eventually, from around the corner appeared an enormous chariot which, for the festive season, contains an image of the deity Bhairab.The statue on the front is of his sidekick, Bhadrakali. Excited men hung off it and some in white robes and orange hats -possibly holy men – had seats inside. Apparently (though we couldn’t see), Bhairab’s consort, Betal, follows behind in her own chariot.

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After a few minutes, to another cheer, this monstrosity lurched forward, ploughing through the crowd, as onlookers scattered to flee its path! It was actually quite scary, unsure as we were if this was a normal sequence of events! This happened again a couple of times before the chariot seemed to come to a stop and we turn our attention 180° to look back at the square.

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Over the next hour or so, as dusk fell, we watched the crowd’s excitement as a cross-shaped structure (an unusual lingam with leafy branches protruding on each side) was very slowly, very theatrically lifted, propped, lifted and propped on its way to an eventual vertical position. By the time darkness fell, the lingam was only at about 45° so we decided to head back to our hotel.

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About 20 minutes later, as we were walking to get a taxi, we heard an almighty shout, quickly followed by ambulance sirens. We looked back toward the square. The lingam had fallen, snapped in half and (we later discovered) killed one man and injured several others! The man who told us this seemed unperturbed: it often happens apparently, and they bring a couple of spare crosses from the forest too so that another can be erected and the harvest need not be spoilt!

A mile away, in our hotel room on a hillside, we could still hear the crowds late into the night.

NAMOBUDDHA TO PANAUTI

Most people who visit Nepal do so to trek. We had neither the time nor the physical ability to do this but we did really want to get out and see a bit more countryside. Consequently we planned a day trip to a Buddhist pilgrimage stupa called Namobuddha, about 17km out of Bhaktapur, followed by a few hours’ walk to the village of Panauti.

This was all very well and good… in theory! What we hadn’t accounted for was that it was New Year’s Day, which families and groups of friends typically spend visiting temples. So the roads were incredibly busy, so busy in fact that our taxi driver turfed us out a good 1.5km away from our start destination, correctly saying it would be quicker to walk! So off we strode, in the heat and the thick orange dust, winding our way uphill through the immobile traffic. Eventually, we reached the stupa which was teeming with devotee day-trippers.

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We spent a few minutes wandering around, before embarking on the road to Panauti. The dust and the heat contiued but we had the road largely to ourselves. It had all been worthwhile: tall pine trees offered up their scent and their shade; panoramic views emerged of terraced farmland with the colouful dots of busy workers; villages gently bustled with goats, cows, chickens, children and chatting adults.

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Reaching Panauti at dusk, we found a bus that would take us back to Bhaktapur, a journey which took about an hour and a half due to the holiday traffic.

After a hot day, traipsing through dust and being covered in it by every passing vehicle, you can probably imagine how much we wanted showers! But, once back at the hotel, we found the cold water main had burst! There was then a powercut whilst we ate dinner and a deafening, long storm all night long! All part of the adventure!

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The next morning, after our second visit to the Timilsina family…

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…we were off to India! Here’s our surprisingly agreeable ‘bedroom’ on a night train to our first destination!

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