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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Monday, 11 April 2011

April 11th: Kathmandu

On April 11th 1979 I was in Kathmandu.  In the six years since my previous visit Kathmandu had grown up considerably.  There was traffic in many areas, though Durbar Square in the heart of the city was still quiet.  Freak Street had lost its hash shops but gained more freaks and pie shops.  Pig Alley was still there behind Durbar Square with its shrines and lingams, and pigs ferreting around in piles of filth and running sewage.  It did, however, feel like a real city now and I most enjoyed getting out and visiting the temples and other places around the outskirts.

On this day I walked up to the temple of Swayambhu on top of a hill to the west.  It is primarily a Buddhist site though it is revered by nearly everyone, and the devotion to its goddess is thought to protect against smallpox.  I left my shoes at the bottom of the staircase and climbed up as with one puff.  At the top I walked around the stupa and fended off small boys and a well-dressed "I am poor man, I am beggar-boy" youth.  I sat in the courtyard of the library, surrounded by filth and flies and ducks, and recorded this:
Swaymabhu 2009:  Picture by Ingmar Zahovsky, CC
The site here so colourful, dirty, smelly, mediaeval.  I'm sitting on the edge of the ground floor meeting place on the library side, there are pillars and bells and a little stupa between me and the great eyes and the gold steeple of 13 discs rising to the sky and decked with flags of five colours.  A lot of country women in bright red were going round and lighting the lamps when I was there, scarlet dresses and black hair.  Dogs lie about in the sun, monkeys steal food and pigeons peck in the piles of rubbish.  A group of beggar children cluster round me.  Grains or seeds in white, brown and red lie in front of some Buddha statues to collect the sunlight.  Little girls in rags with snotty-nosed baby sisters on their backs, eyes streaming.  A boy monk plays with a green ball.  To my left is the gold temple with the silver door - I imagine it is to the goddess of smallpox, it's so ornate, two-storey pagodas, flags and bells hanging, and a gold version of the flag of Nepal on either side of the doorway.  A black goat with a little bell looks for food and Westerners take photos.
The Square at Bodnath:  Picture by Richdrogpa, CC
Another time with a friend I took a late afternoon bus out to Bodnath, the main Buddhist site.  The stupa at first seemed a little hostile, too touristy; there were beggars as you walked around and Tibetans selling things, but it seemed better in the evening light as the Tibetans came out to pay their reverence.  We climbed up on top and looked at the square and the stupa from a grandstand point.  Then we drank chang in a very pleasant shop, a little pub atmosphere, rose-garden and good chang, and only 4 rupees to get us a bit tipsy, a Westerners' place, a group of Americans and English who talked in loud voices.  The whole square at Bodnath is surrounded by fine high buildings which could be from a mediaeval European city; the front rooms of the chang shop were made of stone with wooden benches and tables.

Best of all was Pashupatinath, the principal Shiva temple on a bend of the river.  I went with friends on rented bicycles and found the temple relaxed and not crowded.  I wrote this up in my journal that day:
Pashupatinath, 2005:  Picture by Xitus, CC
Pashupatinath very beautiful.  We sat on the other side of the river among the shrines, sometimes among the tourists and the beggars and the hustlers.  We watched a crazy young sadhu in red fine clothes, shouting "Bom" and casting his stick at various dogs and monkeys, a real exhibitionist, hurling himself frontwards and backwards in the thin stream of the river, a group of boys to watch; another quiet sadhu was a bit bemused, we were laughing out loud.  And then up the hill to the peaceful sanctuary there, a group of shrines with houses, sanctuaries for sadhus, mad women and a guy with bad elephantiasis.  Such a beautiful spot.  Then we walked over the hills, getting too close to an army camp. 
Otherwise Durbar Square, the heart of Kathmandu was always worth a visit.  I could sit high up on one of the temples, admiring the carvings, lions perhaps, and the carved windows which no one seemed to notice.  Below I could watch the movie, of freaks and tourists, and various shades of Nepalis, ordinary men in tight white trousers and colourful hats, barefoot women carrying heavy loads, whether in local dress or wearing colourful saris.  Finally I made a visit, again by bicycle, to Patan, another city but almost a suburb of Kathmandu.  It had its own Durbar Square, and with its dirty streets, high narrow town-houses and wooden pagodas, and it was not unlike Kathmandu.  

Patrimonium Mundi has many panoramas of Kathmandu.  These include Durbar Square, Pashupatinath, Bodnath, Swaymabhu and Patan

Kathmandu, Durbar Square, 2009:  Picture by Shoestring, CC

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