Monday, May 22, 2017

Go Tell It On the Mountain 6b

April 14, 2017 continued...

Our wonderful guide, Hari, was waiting for us at the airport upon our return from our morning flight over Everest.  We jumped right back into touring, and our first stop of the afternoon was one of the most startling and memorable, Pashupatinath.  Entering, we saw more monkeys, and some brightly-colored holy men in orange and white with wild hair; one was playing an accordion-type instrument, and was surrounded by a small group of onlookers.  You could pay to take your picture with them.  We were confronted with women hawking beaded necklaces, and when they persisted, Tim told them, "Later."

Monkeys at the gate

Pashupatinath is a sacred Hindu temple and crematorium, and it presents a stark example of our cultural differences.  Situated on the banks of the sacred Bagmati River, a shallow, grey-black waterway, this is where many Nepalis bring their dead to be cremated.  It is believed that the soul won't realize a body is dead, and will try to re-enter it; so cremation must take place as soon as possible, often just hours after passing.  On the far side of the river are several cremation ghats,  square cement platforms used to burn the bodies for all to see.  It took a moment to process just what it was we were seeing.

The oldest son, accompanied by his family, performs the cremation, bringing the shrouded body to Pashupatinath, performing rituals, building the pyre, and tending the fire as it burns.  He must then shave his head and dress all in white, the color of mourning in Hindu culture.

Hari said many different ethnic groups perform cremations here, and they each have unique rituals.  We saw three or four fires already burning, a group making a stretcher from bamboo, and a family in the process of preparing a body.  This group held a long, white cloth around the body so it was not visible to onlookers.  At one point, all the family members wept as they walked in circles around the deceased.  It was heartrending to witness.  In our culture, this is a very private moment, but here hundreds of Hindus lined the riverbanks and filled the bridge over the river, along with the tourists.

The white cloth on the right is shielding a body from view

many onlookers
Just in front of the main temple, across the river from where we stood, was a platform that could only be used for royalty or high officials.  This is where the royal family was cremated after the 2001 massacre.  Today a body was being cremated on that same platform, which may have explained the large crowd of onlookers.  After the 2015 earthquake, fires burned here day and night for the hundreds of victims of the quake.

The main temple behind, only open to Hindus
Once the fire has died, the ashes are sent into the river, which will eventually join the sacred Ganges.  We saw barefoot boys wading in this same water with bamboo sticks in hand, looking for coins that were thrown in by mourners.

On our side of the river were some circular platforms used for other rituals.  On one platform, a family sat and offered food to their ancestors.  Hari said this is part of the cremation ritual; the deceased's family gathers for a ceremonial offering to the departed soul (locally known as "Shradha"), led by a Hindu priest.  It may take place at home or at any holy place like this.  The mourning lasts for one full year, and restrictions determine which foods may be eaten during that time.

The eldest son wears white and has his head shaved
Behind us was a row of small shrines dedicated to Shiva.  They were arranged in such a way that one could stand at one end and look straight through all the shrines to the other side.  Inside each shrine was an identical, large shivalinga, the phallic symbol that represents the intertwined male and female, and is a symbol of Shiva.

As we turned to head back toward the entrance, the women who were hawking necklaces at the entrance had tracked us down - quite impressive in this crowd, although we certainly didn't blend in very well.  They said in English, "You said 'Later!'"  We applauded their tenacity, but it was still a "no, thank-you."

On our way out, we walked through an area where many holy men, Sadhus, live, subsisting on minimal shelter and food.  Smoking cannabis is a big part of Sadhu rituals, and hundreds of holy men travel here each year for the Hindu festival of Maha Shivaratri, when the ban on marijuana is temporarily lifted.  Many locals take part in the festivities as well.

Next, we drove about forty-five minutes through heavy traffic to the city of Bhaktapur, Hari's hometown and home to many  of the Newari ethnic group.  It is billed as the cultural capital of Nepal, and dates back to the 8th century, when it was the capital city of Nepal.  It is considered a living museum, displaying the depth of Newari culture that has remain unchanged for generations.  Many great festivals take place here each year.

The city is laid out in an interesting pattern, with city gates and four big squares that serve as hubs of activity.  We walked from one square to another by way of narrow alleyways, the rich culture of the city evident with every step.  Hari led us to yet another upstairs restaurant, this time the Cafe de Peacock on Dattatraya Square, with a wonderful view of the oldest temple in the city and the busy square below.  I had vegetarian cashew rice, as we watched an old man trying to sleep off the New Year's eve celebration, (here called Bisket Jatra), of the previous night.  He sprawled across the edge of a pillar, and did not look at all comfortable!

We watched sacred goats wander through the colorful crowd.  A man pushed a bright blue and green cart into the square, and fed sugar cane into a contraption to extract the juice for something that looked like a snow cone.

After lunch, we wove through the crowds to a big square (named Yoh Si Khel), where the main part of the Bisket Jatra festival took place.  The night before the new year, a huge tug-of-war takes place between the eastern and western parts of the city.  Then a huge chariot carrying a statue of the god Bhairava is pulled by hundreds of people to this open ground so that the god may enjoy the festivities.  An enormous tree trunk, a Yoh Si, lingum, is erected and inserted into the yoni stone, the female base.  This trunk remains for twenty-four hours, then is taken down to signify the start of the new year.  We were disappointed that we kept Hari from being able to participate in the festivities with his family, but he was quite good-natured about it.

the chariot

the huge tree trunk erected in the square
We continued on through the streets, when Hari said he would show us his house, and told us the story of how he was at home when the earthquake hit, and his home came down around him.  He had to dig himself out of the rubble, but was lucky not to be seriously hurt.  He spent hours helping neighbors escape, and was relieved to know his wife and son were unharmed.  This area was the hardest hit, and the damage was evident everywhere.

on the streets

We arrived at his home, and ducked our heads to enter the narrow passageway where only parts of the walls were still standing.  We walked through a small courtyard where two young boys were playing, one was Hari's four-year-old son.  Behind the courtyard was a small room at the back that survived the quake.  We were welcomed into their one-room home, with one bed and a couple of chairs, and met his mother, brother, nephew, niece and his lovely wife.  They kindly offered us a cup of soda, and we sat and visited for a bit.  I wished we had something to give them in return.  I remembered I had a package of mechanical pencils in my bag, and gave one to each of the children.  What a lovely and gracious family.  Luckily, they have a temporary home outside the city while repairs are slowly being made to their true home inside the old city.  We felt honored to be welcomed so generously.

We said, "Namaste!" and headed back out into the holiday crowd.  Next was Taumadhi Square, where a stage was set up on one side, and the square was teeming with people.  The centerpiece of the square is the tall, raised, multi-roofed Nyatapola Temple, the base of which was absolutely covered with festival goers.  This unique temple was built in 1702, and is one of the tallest temples in Nepal.

Nyatapola Temple

Hari and his fellow citizens

a family posing for pictures
Our final stop was Durbar Square, where we entered the courtyard of the Palace of Fifty-Five Windows through the "Golden Gate," circa 1754, considered by many to be the "most lovely piece of art in the whole kingdom."  Inside the gate, we passed by a military guard and lined up to go through to the inner courtyard.  There we saw a huge stone pool that served as the king's bath.  We filed in and out through an extremely narrow doorway.

Beautifully detailed Golden Gate

Statue of King Bhupatindra Malla looks across to the palace.
He completed the construction his father began.
We enjoyed the festive atmosphere back out on the street, including the many groups of drummers and musicians.

We drove back to Kathmandu - unfortunately, Hari had to make the long drive with us, just to pick up his motorbike and go right back again.  We hoped he would make it back for some of the festivities that night.  We were still full from our late lunch, so we skipped dinner and went to bed.  What an amazing day.


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