Kathmandu, Nepal: Hindu and Buddhist Influences

27 11 2018
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Approaching the Boudhanath

Prior to striking out on our trek to Annapurna, we spent some time in Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu. Taken together with the surrounding valley, the greater Kathmandu area has a population of about 5 million. Although Nepal boasts the highest mountains in the world, including 29,029′ Everest, most don’t realize much of the country sits at lower elevation, and Kathmandu is at 4,600 feet.

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My flight to Kathmandu took off from Guangzhou, China, and I was fortunate to sit next to a couple from Kathmandu – now living in Sydney, but who were going home for the popular 5-day Hindu festival known in Nepal as Dipawali – the festival of lights. They told me how the whole city would be lit up like Christmas. And, on Wednesday night, the darkest night, the children go house to house like Halloween and sing songs and get offerings. It is a celebration of light over darkness – and knowledge over ignorance. They said that every household goes out of its way to be clean and beautiful. That got me really excited! Though we would be leaving the city before the climax.

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The giants come into view!

I was also fortunate to be seated on the right side of the plane, so I could see the Himalayas of Bhutan and Nepal! We even saw Everest.

Upon landing, the reality of life on the subcontinent strikes hard. Time slows, and strict schedules suddenly fall away. I knew about this, but jet lag was coming on strong.

Several flights landed almost at once, depositing some 600 jet lagged passengers to be processed by less than 10 officers. The lines didn’t seem to move. In my line, I looked up, and the officer went to lunch! I switched lines, only to have the last person in front of me have a problem and take 15 minutes.

And if that wasn’t enough, there was more! They require another X-ray of bags. And this time, the officer was too busy chatting with buddies to even look at the screen. Finally, I reach the passenger pick up outside the terminal and yell, “Cattara!” hoping a driver was waiting. One guy came over anxiously, but it turned out he was not my driver. Fact was, it took me TWO HOURS to get through immigration, so long my driver went to lunch. And this guy was there in his place. Not to drive, just meet me. About to pass out from jet lag and unable to untangle my brain, I just waited. And waited. And waited. Until I almost couldn’t stand it, and I considered getting my own cab. But then, experience told me, “No, let these people do their jobs. Don’t embarrass him by taking a cab. Save face. It will work out.” And just like that, Karin, my driver, showed up from lunch and I was on my way to the Shangri La Hotel.

If I hadn’t been to other cities such as Saigon, Denpasar, or Phnom Penh, I might have been completely overwhelmed by the rules of the road in Nepal. While it seems like a constant game of “chicken,” and maybe it is, and sometimes cars, buses, motorbikes, bicycles, cows and pedestrians seem to be going in all directions at once, including head-on at you, and sometimes they indeed are, there is some kind of orchestrated dance going on. How do you walk across the street? I remember my first Bangkok guide teaching us. She said, “Just walk, slowly, deliberately, through the traffic, and look at the drivers. Do not hesitate. They will move around you like a school of fish.” And they do.

We reach the Shangri La Hotel. It is a true oasis in the chaos. The rooms are lovely, and there is a wonderful 1/2 acre sized lawn/garden area out back.

The staff at the Shangri La are very courteous and prompt. I had several issues in my room, including a bad electrical outlet. When notified, the staff arrives promptly and takes care of the issue. But it’s more than that. The staff remembers who you are, and takes care to remember the little things. In fact this characteristic rang true for the entire trek as well.

One my rooms at the Shangri La was spectacular.

Kathmandu hosts some of Nepal’s holiest Hindu and Buddhist temples and World Heritage sites. So I began by heading to the Boudhanath and the Pashupatinath. I hired a guide through Cathy Ann to take me there.

The Hindu Pashupatinath Temple complex, reconstructed in the 1400’s, houses no less than 492 temples devoted to different rites. It was overwhelming, busy, and frequented by visitors from near and far. Brahman priests hold court for people seeking certain rites to be performed. Some of the interiors of the temples are off limits to non-Hindus.

One of the most important duties this temple complex carries out is the cremation of the dead. Hindu practice requires cremation by 24 hours of death. The complex is bisected by the Bagmati River, and it is on the banks of this river that cremation, and the drama of loss and grief, takes place. And I was there to witness all of it.

There are dozens of Hindu sects in Nepal, and each has its own cremation rituals. But for each, they take the body of their loved one to this place, where the body is consumed by fire, and the “spirit,” if you will, is allowed to leave and find a new vessel in which to live. There are perhaps 20 stone platforms along the river.

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A loved one’s body is turned 3x clockwise before laying down on the pyre.

A specialized Brahman is trained to carry out the rite. He lays specially cut logs on the platform. Then a body is carried to the site and spun three times clockwise, before laid down.

Once down, depending upon the sect, men, or men and then women, walk around the body three times clockwise.

I saw one woman ask to see the face of the dead. She was so shocked or grief stricken at what she saw that she fainted and had to be carried back to the steps to recover. This is the drama that is death.

Once the family has retreated, the Brahman can begin the process. He anoints the entire body with camphor oil. The first step in cremation is lighting the head. So I witnessed the priest removing the saffron colored body covering from a body’s head, and lighting it. After a short time, the priest continued lighting the logs underneath. I also witnessed the priests stoking the cremation, and then, when done, sweeping the ashes into the Bagmati River. It is very moving to witness this human drama.

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The next temple complex I was to visit was the Boudhanath, one of the holiest Buddhist stupas in the country. I knew it was also one of the largest stupas in the world. When I arrived, I was first amazed at the condition of the roads leading to it. They are just dirt. My guide Bir told me that the condition of the roads was due to bureaucratic gridlock. The clean water bureau, the sewer bureau and the transportation bureau all wrung their hands and nobody will move forward to get the street constructed properly. Until then, the street remains dirt. With some big sewer pipes just in piles!

This Buddhist stupa is very important to millions. And there were thousands here paying their respects. There are prayer wheels surrounding the stupa and many were walking around it, spinning the wheels in respect. The levels of the stupa represent the levels of attainment one must pass to reach nirvana. Only the very top represents attainment of nirvana!

We visited a school where students create Thankas, paintings usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala. In their finest and most detailed form, a Thanka can take many weeks to finish. My favorite is of the Tibetan Buddhist Wheel of Life.

Thanka Wheel of Life

I loved this because here, life is set up as a kind of “game” to get to Nirvana, represented by the figures on the upper right and left. Below, the spirit recycles through the six realms of existence of Samsara, some better than others. If you vary from the path, you might fall into the realm of animals, or jealous demi gods, or some other form of desire or suffering. Only by following the true path can you jump into the upper right of left.

So, what was Rod to make of this? It is a perfect pin ball game! Set it down, tilt it, and insert into a pin ball machine. Add flippers, and you get the point. Any mistakes and your pinball goes down the wrong hole, and back into Samsara. Only the exact correct combination of flipper flips can get that pinball into enlightenment!

Next up we pay a visit to some of the outlying temples near Kathmandu, Bhaktapur!


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