Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Kathmandu Part II

There are certain places in the world that you wouldn't wish sickness on anyone and Kathmandu would probably be high on that list. Alas, my luck was out upon my arrival here - the ear infection I'd feared ever since my days diving in Thailand emerged within hours of my return to Bangkok and, as luck would have it, I had not one, but two flights to take the following day, first to Delhi and then on to Kathmandu. Groggy as hell upon arrival here and with little or no hearing in my left ear, I checked into my lodgings and headed straight to the Nepal International Clinic. The place deservedly has an international reputation and many thanks to Dr. Shresta who patiently listened to me moan about not being able to trek whilst doling out medical advice and ear drops with a proper kick. Two more days of almost complete deafness in one ear ensued - it's no fun travelling alone in those situations - but by Day 3 things began to clear up and get back to normal.
Most of the magic happens well outside of the confines of Thamel which is designed solely with tourist interests in mind. Firstly, there’s the magnificence of Durbar Square, a stunning complex once home to the Nepali royal family and filled with temples, roaming livestock and the ubiquitous pigeons. I'd almost forgotten how much I fucking hate pigeons. The square is also home to the Kumari. The Kumari, the Nepali Buddhists believe, is the modern-day manifestation of a goddess and the process to choose a kumari is a rigorous one as the child - and it's always a child - is chosen from a particular clan and must pass a variety of eligibility tests e.g. never shed any blood, lost any teeth etc. Once the child reaches puberty and begins to menstruate, they're discarded (the shedding of blood is seen as impure) and the whole process begins anew to find the next kumari. As it was all described to me, I couldn't help think of Bill Cullen, pointing a withering finger at an unsuspecting 15 year old, mouthing the words 'You're fired'. The Apprentice: Kumari.
Streaming through the square is an endless stream of porters carrying back-breaking loads with a solitary strap attached to their foreheads. They quietly shuffle along, barely able to see in front of them bearing loads as diverse as computers to plastic chairs piled 20 high.
Then there’s the sight of the sadhus - truly remarkable looking men in brightly coloured robes and psychedelic face-paint who unfortunately stand there with the sole intent of encouraging tourists to take photographs of them in return for having their palms greased. One approaches me with the familiar call of ‘Namaste’ (Nam-ass-tay), makes a take photo gesture and immediately stands to attention complete with crazy face and finger pointing skyward. I smile, shake my head and walk away. It's surprising given that the sadhu has given up all material belongings in order to achieve freedom through meditation. But these are 21st century sadhus and this is a recession, right? Or maybe they've always been like that.
From there it’s a long hike out to Pashupatinath which is the holiest Hindu site in the city. Through this site flows the Bagmati river which, I’m told, flows all the way to the mighty Ganges. There's a rule here - which isn't all that strictly enforced - that all non-Hindus must stay on one side of the river and view the temple from there. But, for me, Pashupatinath's main draw card are the Hindu cremation ceremonies which occur there. As I sit on the other side of the river it’s clear that a ceremony is about to occur and so I sit and wait, the voyeur in me fascinated by something I’ve never witnessed before and something I thought I’d have to wait till I got to Varanasi to behold. There’s a group of about 8 Hindi women, resplendent in their brightly coloured saris, crouched over a white blanket upon the ground. Soon it becomes clear that this is the corpse and the sheet is peeled away as the ritualised washing of the corpse begins.
I should point out that I’m not the only one fascinated by this ceremony unfolding - there’s a crowd of about 50 others glued to what‘s happening. Once the corpse is washed, it’s then wrapped initially in an orange robe and then finally in a pristine white robe. Along the filthy river there are about 8 ghats or podiums upon which a pyre is built. The corpse is then placed upon the pyre, lit and burns for as long as it takes. Once the fire dies down, the ashes are swept into the river. The reason the bodies are cremated like this is the belief that the body is a combination of 5 basic elements. When a person dies, the fire ceases so fire is used to complete the fifth element. Or something like that. As it happens, having sat for an hour, nothing happens. The corpse, now wrapped in robes is unceremoniously left there and so I continue on my way investigating the rest of the temple.

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