changu narayan & return to kathmandu

Wednesday, January 23:  At the end of our 4 hour hike, we finally reach the ancient pilgrimage site of Changu Narayan in Kathmandu Valley.   All morning I have been wearing a new pair of hiking shoes that I haven’t quite broken in, and my feet are killing me!  I am happy to see Changu Narayan because it means I will be able to sit in the car for the drive back to Kathmandu.

We take a main street along the top of the ridge to the temple.  Souvenir shops are plentiful and colorful.

colorful souvenir shops along the street to Changu Narayan

colorful souvenir shops along the street to Changu Narayan

Changu Narayan is one of seven World Heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley; it’s been listed by UNESCO since 1979. This beautiful painted temple is where Lord Vishnu is worshiped by Hindus as Narayan and by Buddhists as Hari Hari Hari Vahan Lokeshwor.

The temple sits in a quiet square of rest houses and pilgrims’ shelters.  According to Lonely Planet Nepal, it is the valley’s oldest Vaishnava site, with a documented history going back to the 5th century A.D.   The temple is said to have been reconstructed in 1700.   The temple has some fine repousse work and carved painted struts supporting the roof.  Most of the statues in the courtyard are related to Lord Vishnu.

the temple of Changu Narayan

the temple of Changu Narayan

the incarnations of Vishnu on the struts to the temple

the incarnations of Vishnu on the struts to the temple

a smaller temple in the courtyard

my guide, Prakash Bhattarai of Gurka Encounters, in front of a smaller temple in the courtyard

incarnations of Vishnu

incarnations of Vishnu

The four entrances to Changu Narayan Temple are guarded by life-size pairs of animals such as lions, sarabhas, griffins and elephants on each side of the entrances.  The ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu and the other idols are carved in the struts supporting the roof.

griffins guard the entrances to the temple

griffins guard the entrances to the temple

closer up to the struts with the 10 incarnations of Vishnu

closer up to the struts with the 10 incarnations of Vishnu

the struts of Changu Narayan

the struts of Changu Narayan

We don’t stay very long at this temple, despite its beauty.   I’m tired and hungry and ready to return to Kathmandu for one more day of exploration.  My guide Prakesh, our driver Raju and I ride back through Bhaktapur and then through Kathmandu’s chaotic traffic mishmash of motorbikes, rickshaws, and honking trucks with flowers in their windshields.

Back at Kathmandu Guest House, I eat a late lunch of Egg Chow Mein, which I polish off in its entirety because I’m famished after that long hike from Nagarkot to Changu Narayan!  When I check into my room, though it’s a nice room with a balcony, I find it doesn’t have a bathtub.  I have been looking forward to a long hot soak, so I ask for a change of rooms.   I enjoy the hot bath, put on my pajamas and continue reading my novel, What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt.  I don’t get up again until I finish the book.   After, I get dressed to go out, but the novel’s disturbing story about a sociopath boy, Mark, and his murderous friend, Teddy Giles weighs heavy on me.

I head for dinner at New Orleans Cafe, where I sit next to a warm fire and drink an Everest Beer.  Because of eating that huge plate of Egg Chow Mein for a late lunch, I’m not very hungry, so I order a “small plate” of mashed potatoes.  The plate is actually huge and heaped with mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy.  It’s delicious and filling, especially as, again, I eat every bite.

a warm fire at New Orleans Cafe

a warm fire at New Orleans Cafe

While enjoying my beer after demolishing my “small plate,” some live traditional music begins on stage and a stocky Indian guy named Jay Krishna, who is sitting at an adjacent table, asks if he can join me.  He’s wearing a red fleece jacket and a wool hat pulled down to his eyebrows.  A software engineer doing some work in Nepal, he returns to Bangalore tomorrow.

Everest Beer at New Orleans Cafe

Everest Beer at New Orleans Cafe

Even though he’s Hindu, he believes in Jesus too, especially based on arguments in a book he highly recommends,  Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahanoa Yogananda.  We talk and talk, and he tells me I should buy this book tomorrow in the bookstore across the street.  When he tells me he’s from Bangalore,  I tell him about my trip to India and about the small-framed 25-old-Indian guy Tao, who I met on Facebook, and who took the train all the way from Bangalore to Delhi to meet me.  I laugh and say I couldn’t understand why a guy that young and small could have been attracted to me.  Jay says, “Why not?  I find you attractive.”  I thank him and change the subject.

warmth

warmth

He buys himself a beer but says he can’t buy me one; I tell him I can’t buy him one either.  As I prepare to leave, he tells me he’d like to spend more time with me, but as he’s leaving Kathmandu tomorrow and I’m leaving on Friday morning, and as I’m incredibly tired, I say I don’t really have the energy.  I say goodnight and head back to Kathmandu Guest House, where, exhausted, I fall asleep.

a hike from nagarkot to changu narayan

Wednesday, January 23:  After breakfast and a shower at Hotel View Point, I meet my guide for the day, Prakash Bhattarai of Gurka Encounters.  We begin our hike from Nagarkot, at 1950 meters, at 9 a.m.

Beginning our hike: terraced hills

Beginning our hike: terraced hills

"God is at home.  It's we who have gone out for a walk." ~ Meister Eckhart

“God is at home. It’s we who have gone out for a walk.” ~ Meister Eckhart

Nepali schoolchildren

Nepali schoolchildren

We first walk downhill for a couple of hours to Tellkot, passing terraces planted with mustard and wheat.  Some terraces are simply brown dirt where farmers will plant potatoes and millet in the warmer seasons.

terraces

terraces

terraces and the Himalayas

terraces and the Himalayas

more terraced hills

more terraced hills

terraces & greenhouses

terraces & greenhouses

At some points along the route, we can see views of the Himalayas, snow-capped like some apparition, with the terraced Central Hills in the foreground.  There is a bit of haze in the air, so the view isn’t perfect, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.

view of the Himalayas

view of the Himalayas

the snow-capped Himalayas

the snow-capped Himalayas

the Himalayas rise like an apparition over the Central Hills

the Himalayas rise like an apparition over the Central Hills

We walk through the front yards of colorful painted houses with Nepalis squatting on their front stoops, doors open, cleanly swept dirt floors inside.  These homes seem surprisingly tidy, swept clean both inside and out.  Goats and cows are tied to posts, dogs are barking, and chickens and roosters are crowing.  The air is crisp and cool — a perfect day for hiking.

goats and washline

goats and clothes on the wash line

livestock, terraces and the Himalayas

livestock, terraces and the Himalayas

goats & mountains

goats & mountains

"The home should be the treasure chest of living." ~ Le Corbusier

“The home should be the treasure chest of living.” ~ Le Corbusier

cock-a-doodle-doo!

cock-a-doodle-doo!

farmyard animals

farmyard animals

"Home is where the heart is." ~ Pliny the Elder

“Home is where the heart is.” ~ Pliny the Elder

better homes & gardens

better homes & gardens

I have a small pack, the size of a purse, and a larger backpack holding my overnight stuff.  Lucky for me, Prakash offers to carry it for me through the whole hike.  I should have insisted on carrying it myself; if I ever want to do the Camino de Santiago, I’m going to have to get used to carrying my own stuff!  Admittedly, it’s quite pleasant for me not to have to carry my pack.  🙂  I determine to tip him well for his hard work, which I do when we return to Kathmandu.

the Central Hills and Himalayas of Nepal

the Central Hills and Himalayas of Nepal

hills & mountains

hills & mountains

It’s lovely walking in companionable silence with Prakesh.   I so enjoy a walk out in nature without having someone constantly chattering.  We pass one small Hindu temple that seems quite off the beaten track.

a little Hindu temple in the hills

a little Hindu temple in the hills

haystacks and hills

haystacks and hills

hill country

hill country

more terraces

more terraces

"Be grateful for the home you have, knowing at this moment, all you have is all you need." ~ Sarah Ban Breathnach

“Be grateful for the home you have, knowing at this moment, all you have is all you need.” ~ Sarah Ban Breathnach

At the end of our hike, around 1:00, we can see Changu Narayan, an ancient temple complex, perched on a 1541 meter ridge ahead of us.  Our destination is in sight!  Prakash tells me we’ve walked about 15 km, although Rough Guide to Nepal says this hike, all the way to Bhaktapur, is about 10 km.

me with my destination, Changu Narayan, on the hilltop behind

me with my destination, Changu Narayan, on the hilltop behind

Changu Narayan on the hilltop ahead

Changu Narayan on the hilltop ahead

fields of mustard with Changu Narayan on the hill in the background

fields of mustard with Changu Narayan on the hill in the background

my last views of Kathmandu Valley before we get to the temple

my last views of Kathmandu Valley before we get to the temple

This was one of my favorite days in Nepal, close on the heels of my lovely lake walk in Pokhara.

More on Changu Narayan to follow….

kathmandu valley: the cremation grounds of pashupatinath

Friday, January 18Pashupatinath, a complex of temples, statues, and pilgrims, is Nepal’s holiest Hindu pilgrimage site.  Despite the many things to see in this complex, Buddhi takes me directly to the public cremation grounds along the Bagmati River, which he tells me is a tributary of the sacred Ganges in India.  He also tells me it’s okay to take pictures, which I do because I find it fascinating.  In Varanasi, India, it was strictly forbidden to take photos, so I see this as an opportunity.  If you think it might offend your sensibilities, then I might suggest you don’t read further (or look at my pictures)!

a shop on the way to Pashupatinath ~ selling marigolds used in cremation ceremonies

a shop on the way to Pashupatinath ~ selling marigolds used in cremation ceremonies

fruits and vegetables for sale

fruits and vegetables for sale

one shrine or temple at Pashupatinath

one shrine or temple at Pashupatinath

We find a spot along the east bank of the river across from Arya Ghat, the cremation area reserved for the higher castes: for prominent politicians, minor royals, and these days, anyone else who can afford it.    We stand on a stone terrace studded with 15 great shivalaya (boxy linga shelters), erected to honor women who committed sati on the pyres opposite.  Sati is the now-banned practice where a widowed woman threw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.

Other onlookers are positioned on a bridge over the river.

the Bagmati River

the Bagmati River

Spectators watching the cremation

Spectators watching the cremation

There are two cremations in progress today. Buddhi tells me that when a Hindu dies, the body must be burned on that same day.  It takes about 3 hours for a body to burn, during which time the family stands and watches respectfully.  After the body burns, the ashes are thrown into the Bagmati River.   Sadly, the river itself is clogged with rubbish: plastic bags and containers and every other sort of debris you can imagine.  I can’t understand why there isn’t some effort by the Hindu community or by the government to keep such a holy place clean.

the family washes the deceased feet in the Bagmati River

the family washes the deceased feet in the Bagmati River

Both corpses are wrapped in orange-colored cloths, which Buddhi says is a spiritual color.  The first body is taken down to the river by family members and the feet are washed.  I can’t tell if the corpse is a man or a woman.  Buddhi tells me that the feet of the corpse are washed in order to purify the body, to wash away its sins.  After the feet of the first are washed, the family of the second body carries it down to the river and performs the same ritual.

After the washing rituals, the two families carry both bodies under the bridge to the cremation pyres upriver, to the Ram Ghat, which is used for cremations by all castes.  These two cremations are obviously of the lower castes since the bodies are burned here.

The bodies are put on two pyres.  The families use yak tails to brush away the evil spirits and then place marigold necklaces around the deceased’s necks.  Then the families place brush on top of the bodies and the eldest sons walk around the bodies 7 times.  Buddhi doesn’t think these two bodies are related people, as there seem to be two separate families gathered around each body and they don’t seem to mingle.  We watch in silence as they start to burn the bodies, but it’s obvious it will be a slow process.

the family places the body on the pyre

the family places the body on the pyre

Before I came here, my friend Mona Lisa told me that when she spent 5 months living in Kathmandu, she used to come here to watch the cremations.  It gave her a sense of calm to watch the way Nepalis accept and understand the cycle of life.  As Westerners, we tend to treat death as something to be feared, whereas Eastern cultures see it as a part of the natural cycle.  I don’t feel upset watching these cremations as, over the years, I have become more accepting, and less afraid, of death.  I find other cultures’ treatment of death as interesting, something I can learn from.

brush is placed on the body

brush is placed on the body

...and the pyre is lit

…and the pyre is lit

Buddhi points out the tall whitewashed buildings overlooking the river as dharmsala (pilgrims’ rest houses), for Hindus who are approaching death.  He likens them to what we westerners know as Hospice.

While watching, I get into a brief conversation with an American couple from Santa Fe who have a shop selling Berber carpets.  They visit Morocco quite often to buy carpets for their shop.  I say I love Santa Fe and think it would be a great place to live.  They just finished a 10 day tour of India and four days here in Nepal.  They are really ready to get home.  I know how they feel, especially about India, as the three weeks I spent there in March of 2011 nearly killed me.  As fascinating as it was, it was also an endurance test.

one of many sacred cows along the riverbank

one of many sacred cows along the riverbank

The book I'm reading in Nepal: What I Loved

The book I’m reading in Nepal: What I Loved

After Pashupatinath, we head back to Kathmandu Guest House, where I check my emails, rest a bit, eat my leftover Momos from lunch, and then head to the outdoor dining area for an Everest beer.  I then relax and read the book I have brought along, What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt.  So far, this book has been about the friendship between two men, art critic Leo and Bill, a famous artist.  It also involves their wives, Lucille (Bill’s first wife), Violet (his second) and Erica (Leo’s wife) and the families’ sons: Matthew and Mark.  Tonight is the first night I’ve picked up the book here in Nepal, though I was reading it for some time in Oman before I came here.  I am shocked to come upon the death of Leo and Erica’s son Matthew in a freak accident at camp.  It’s funny how reading a book can color your experience of a place, and I’m upset reading this turn of events in the book.  Little do I know how disturbing it will become in the coming days.

kathmandu valley: the boudha stupa

Friday, January 18: The great stupa at Boudha (also known as Boudhanath) was the biggest, most auspicious landmark along the ancient Kathmandu-Tibet trade route.  One of the world’s largest stupas, Boudha is also the most important Tibetan Buddhist monument outside of Tibet.  Nowadays, Tibetans run most of the businesses surrounding the stupa, and they have also built monasteries, extending the community well past the stupa’s borders.   Historians cannot establish an exact date for the origins of the stupa, but legend has it that the monument was built in the 5th century.

The Boudha Stupa

The Boudha Stupa

The Boudha stupa commands veneration because it’s believed that it contains holy relics, perhaps part of the Buddha’s body (bones, hair and teeth) and possibly objects owned or touched by him, including ritual objects and sacred texts.  Because the stupa has been sealed for centuries, no one knows for certain what is inside, but faith continues to draw pilgrims to this day.

pilgrims & tourists walk clockwise around the Boudha stupa

pilgrims & tourists walk clockwise around the Boudha stupa

Pilgrims come from all over the Himalayan region because of the Boudha’s powers to fulfill wishes and bestow blessings.  People are allowed to climb up on to the stupa’s base.  The stupa is elevated on three 20-cornered plinths of decreasing size; this establishes the idea of the stupa as a mandala, or meditation tool.  The Buddha’s blue eyes are painted on four sides of the central spire, topped by the 13 steps to nirvana.  Prayer wheels are mounted around the perimeter wall.  According to Rough Guide to Nepal, one spin of a prayer wheel here equals repeating the mantra engraved on it 11,000 times!

around and around the Boudha

around and around the Boudha

the Boudha with prayer flags

the Boudha with prayer flags

and more prayer flags

and more prayer flags

Buddhi and I walk clockwise around the huge stupa.  He asks me if I’d like to see a studio where thangkas are painted.  A good thangka takes hundreds — even thousands — of painstaking hours to do.   A cotton canvas is stretched across a frame and then burnished to a smooth surface.  The design is then drawn in pencil, but there is not much artistic license here as these designs are supposed to represent religious truths.   An apprentice blocks in the large areas of color, and then the master brings the figure to life with lining, stippling, facial features, shading, the eyes, and other minute details.  I watch as apprentice works on one with fierce concentration.

a thangka store

a thangka store

a mandala thangka

a mandala thangka

There are four main types of thangkas: Wheel of Life, Buddha’s Life Story, tantric deities, and finally mandala drawings used in meditation. I agree to go in, where of course they try to sell me as many expensive thangkas as they can.  I actually am interested in these, so I do buy two of them, but not the outrageously expensive ones: a mandala and a wheel of life.

On one side of the stupa, we stop into a room with a giant prayer wheel, where I’m able to turn the wheel while saying a prayer for the thing I want most in this world.  Then we climb up into the Tamang gompa, where we have a good vantage point of the stupa.

entrance to Tamang gompa

entrance to Tamang gompa

the large prayer wheel in Tamang gompa

the large prayer wheel in Tamang gompa

the painted doors and walls inside Tamang gompa

the painted doors and walls inside Tamang gompa

the view of Boudha from the balcony

the view of Boudha from the balcony

From the balcony, we can see people climbing and walking atop the stupa, but Buddhi says that today is not an auspicious day to climb up on the stupa.  Apparently the monks determine which days are auspicious and announce those days to the public; today isn’t one of them, but that doesn’t stop people from climbing up.

another view from the balcony

another view from the balcony

view of the surrounding rooftops from the balcony

view of the surrounding rooftops from the balcony

I comment on the pigeons that are like drab confetti sprinkled all over Kathmandu.  Buddhi tells me that while Europeans routinely poison pigeons because they’re nuisances, Buddhists believe all life is sacred.  They value the lives of pigeons, as they do every life (I don’t know if what he says about Europeans is true!).

the view of the walkway around the Boudha, filled with pigeons

the view of the walkway around the Boudha, filled with pigeons

back on the ground again: pigeons up close and personal

back on the ground again: pigeons up close and personal

We continue to make the circle around the Boudha, enjoying the colorful shops, the devout pilgrims turning prayer wheels and walking meditatively, the different perspectives of the Boudha, and warm wool gloves for sale along the way.

more views of the Boudha with his all-seeing eyes

more views of the Boudha with his all-seeing eyes

Boudha

Boudha

colorful woolen gloves for sale

colorful woolen gloves for sale

shops around the perimeter, with a line of pilgrims or monks

shops around the perimeter, with a line of pilgrims or monks

Brightly colored shops

Brightly colored shops

After wandering around the stupa, we decide to eat lunch at Boudha Kitchen, where I have a delicious Momo and vegetable noodle soup and then an order of Momos on top of that.  It is way too much food!  It’s delicious, although I take most the momo order back to the hotel for a snack later.

heading to Boudha Kitchen for lunch

heading to Boudha Kitchen for lunch

Momo and vegetable noodle soup at Boudha Kitchen

Momo and vegetable noodle soup at Boudha Kitchen

a solitary figure on the Boudha contemplating... life?

a solitary figure on the Boudha contemplating… life?

After our lunch and long stop at the Boudha, we head next to the cremation grounds of Pashupatinath.