Friday, January 1, 2010
2. Go to Nepal (Part 1: New Year's Day)
So, my plan had been to do a single post for each new thing, but there's just no way I can do only one post on Nepal. This first one is about two amazing sites I got to visit on New Year's Day: Pashupatinah and the Bodnath stupa. I am going to do a post about the family I'm staying with, my old friend Cliff, his wonderful wife Nicole and their unbelievably fun daughter Jai Lyn. But for right now, especially because it's late but I want to write this while it's still fresh, I wanted to describe a little bit about these two places.
Cliff and I walked from their place to Pashupatinah because there was a big political protest today that shut down all the roads in Kathmandu. These protests are fairly common and usually called by the Maoist Party, but this one was called by indigenous rights groups. In any case, it turned out to be a kindness for my purposes because getting there was about a 45 minute walk that let me see a lot more of the city than I would have by car.
Pashupatinah is a very important Hindu religious site, and the temple sits on the banks of the sacred Bagmati River. It is dedicated to the god Shiva, and many devout Hindus come to the hospice here when they know they will be dying soon so that they can be cremated and their ashes thrown into the river. There are six cremation blocks on the river, and at least today, when we visited, there was a nonstop flow of bodies being cremated. There are many fascinating rites that go along with the cremations, including covering the bodies with holy water, stripping them naked (under blankets and flowers), and making a last food offering of rice. The eldest son (or another one of the offspring if necessary) must shave his head after doing the funeral rites and go into a 13 day sort of seclusion in another building on the site. I couldn't get over the fact that these rituals and the cremations were all celebrated so openly and publicly, and it was certainly an interesting way to think about change and the cyclical nature of life on, of all days, the first day of the new year. There are a number of other temples and sculptures, as well as a set of caves that people stay in for meditation on the site. In fact, I'd say the whole thing was about as overwhelming to the senses as anything I've ever experienced.
By comparison, the Boudhnath stupa, that we walked to afterwards, was almost sedate. This is an enormous Buddhist temple surrounded by masses of small shops and cafes, with the Himalayas as a backdrop. It is also a sort of center of the Tibetan community in Nepal, and so there are all kinds of colorful Tibetan clothing being worn, and there are lots of robed Tibetan monks walking around. It is a beautiful sight, and full of all kinds of activity.
I'm including 3 pictures. One is a shot of the cremations and subsequent ash-depositing into the Bagmati River; in the second one I am sitting with a hindu holy man (sadhu) who has rubbed cremation ashes all over his body; and in the third I'm standing in front of the Boudhnath stupa (thanks to Cliff for taking the latter two shots on my camera!)
While I was walking around the stupa (you are supposed to go in only one direction, with the stupa on your right) looking at some elaborately-carved wooden doors I had a moment of feeling I was back in Zanzibar, which has similar carved-wood doors. And then I realized the comparison goes deeper and that I love the same thing about Nepal as I love about Zanzibar. They are both cross roads where religions and ethnicities and languages meet. On Zanzibar it is the meeting of mainland African culture with the Middle East, with smatterings of other Indian Ocean country influences. Similarly, Nepal sits at the crossroads of India and China, and of Buddhism and Hinduism, with chunks of other ethnicities and religions thrown in. I think the most fascinating spots on earth are the ones where cultures come together, and now I understand why Nepal has captured the imagination of so many people for so many years.