Worshippers make offerings and lamas chant at the full moon celebration at Boudhanath stupa in Katmandu. January 2000.
Women selling holy colored powders outside Pashupatinath in Katmandu.
Young cricket-playing monks outside Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu..
Kathmandu was unlike any place
we have ever been--mysterious, dirty, fascinating,
beautiful and mystical, but so poor. This crowded city
has a shaky infrastructure and a government that has
suffered from much corruption. The streets are full of
potholes, cars, trucks, motorbikes, people, dogs and
cows, and the air is full of exhaust and pollution from
Accessed by a rubble road, near the five year-old construction site of Nepal?s some-day-to-be largest hotel, this round plaza, flanked by small shops and restaurants was a respite from the challenge outside the Boudha archway.
Inside Boudha at dawn and dusk, under the watchful painted Buddha eyes of the Boudhanath stupa, monks, older Tibetans in traditional dress, and young people in jeans walk clockwise around the stupa, spinning prayer wheels, chanting prayers or just walking. At these peak times, folding tables are set up with hundreds of yak butter lamps, their glow and distinctive scent filling the misty air.
We were fortunate to be in Kathmandu for the full moon to witness the Buddhist ceremony at the stupa. In the morning the dome of the stupa was freshly whitewashed and handfuls of saffron were tossed over it in a semi circular pattern representing the lotus. Prayer flags and skirt fringes were replaced. In the evening, many more people than usual came to walk around the stupa and many more prayer lamps were lit. Some pilgrims circled the stupa prostrating themselves full length on the ground every few steps. Clouds obscured the moon at times, but down below, the excitement was mounting.
A large pile of barley was set out near one of the altars surrounding the stupa and worshippers placed fruit and packaged cookies on the pile to be blessed as an offering. Five or six monks sat on either side, some chanting prayers from manuscripts, other playing conch shells, horns or chimes at appropriate moments. Following the ceremony, the offerings were distributed to the monks and also to eager children who stood ready with plastic grocery bags to receive the treats.
In the early morning market and tiny shops of Boudha, we found some treasures for Mingei: old yak wool skirts from Tibet, old offering bowls and butter lamps, ringa headdresses worn by lamas during ceremonies and chakali cards, used in prayer.
Just over a mile from Boudha, Pashupatinath, the main Hindu temple and pilgrimage site offers a whole different aspect. As non-Hindus we could not go inside the temple which is dedicated to destroyer and creator Shiva, but we could walk the grounds. Set along the holy Bagmati River, which connects later with the holiest Ganges in India, the temple is the principal site for cremations in the Kathmandu valley.
While we were there, the body of a prominent military man was brought to one of the platforms reserved for high caste cremations. Mourners, a military band and dozens of onlookers watched as the male members of his family bathed his body and his son lit the funeral pyre. Adjacent to the cremation platforms is a hospice, as dying with one?s feet in the holy water is auspicious.
Sadhus, Hindu holy men who have renounced material comforts, live on the temple grounds. They rub themselves with the ashes of the cremation grounds and eat only what worshippers offer them as sustenance. They are known to use some of the offerings they receive to buy alcohol and marijuana, and do have an otherworldly air about them. We met Milk Baba here, a famous sadhu who purportedly has lived only on milk for many years. Aside from the deep spirituality of Nepal, the scale of the poverty struck us. Almost 30% of the nation?s revenue comes from foreign aid and loans. The Tibetans are relatively affluent in Nepal, their carpet industry providing as much as 25% of the country?s foreign exchange income. But outside Boudha, people approached us constantly: begging, selling things, reaching into taxi windows, pulling on our clothes. Many little boys use their English to try for handouts from tourists, or to persuade them to come see their "painting school", usually a shop where young men were turning out thangkas (intricate Tibetan style paintings).
One endearing boy walked around with us for most of an afternoon, chatting, showing us a bit of the city, very friendly but skipping off after he was unable to persuade us to buy a history book for him "for my history test tomorrow". Apparently the stores then buy the books back from the boys for a fraction of the cost. There are some worthy projects begun by local co-ops, UNICEF and other relief agencies, which aim to ease the poverty by assisting women in establishing businesses and making crafts to supplement their income.
We found some beautiful UNICEF cards made from handmade paper and some charming paintings from women?s project in southern Nepal. The vendors were so appreciative, but we knew our impact was small.¨
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