The Kathmandu journey continues, Part 6…
Our small amount of time in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal was strikingly memorable. This was not alone due to the wonderfully friendly people we met, the deep and fascinating culture or the beautiful, if fragile architecture, it was because all of these things were impacted dreadfully one week after our return when the country was hit by a catastrophic earthquake. It is with deep fondness, sadness and ultimately an intense feeling of good-fortune and privilege that we remember our time in this unique and captivating place.
Rain overnight meant that we had a day of pollution-free air and blue skies, which made our south-facing-mountain-views over breakfast on the terrace of Milla Guesthouse quite spectacular.
Our guide, Rajesh, collected us late morning (thanks to the delays of the ever present Kathmandu traffic), and we headed to the monastery of Namobuddha. The last half hour of the road to the monastery was a muddy-pothole-filled adventure with an occasional ‘bang’ of the head against the door of the car. Luckily, our driver, Shree, was experienced and patient and got us there without mishap.
Like the Kopan monastery we visited earlier in our trip, this is a modern and impressive compound, home to over 250 monks. Due to our late start, our timing was not ideal, and we were unable to see inside the temple as the monks were at lunch. So instead, as the mist from the rain lifted, we enjoyed the views of the mountains that rimmed the valley, and had been hidden from us by the tenacious smog for the previous five days. It was the extent of the outlook and the clarity of the air that took us by surprise – a perfect location and aspect for a place of worship.
We grabbed lunch at the little kiosk outside the monastery gates, choosing a scalding hot thumpu (Tibetan noodle soup). I may have burnt my mouth, but it certainly warmed me up on this cold, wet day.
As we approached Bhaktapur on the return trip, much mirth was provided by the goats travelling atop the public buses – agilely balancing on the outcrops of luggage, just like they would in the mountainous terrain, only these mountains were jolting all over the place, so this perilous ‘working at heights’ was even more impressive! Some were less adventurous and were cruising along, seated, but it was the mavericks that were most entertaining.
Back at Bhaktapur, we spent the early afternoon exploring more of the narrow brick-paved streets. The woodcarving factory revealed true craftsmanship and talent as entire replica peacock windows were carved from one large piece of wood. The 15th century original, one of the things Bhaktapur is famous for, is only a street away at the Pujari Math, which now houses the Wood-carving Museum. This Peacock Window is regarded as the finest carved window in all of the valley – which is saying something when you see ornately and exquisitely carved wooden Newar windows in all of these old buildings.
Taumadhi Tole – the beginnings of Bisket Jatra
Taumadhi Tole is the centre of Newari culture in Bhaktapur. And while the vibrancy and atmosphere of this square is consistently engaging throughout the year, it is in April that the place is split wide open with colour and energy.
Walking through the streets towards this square, there were so many people about, all getting into the celebratory groove that is the extended holiday for Nepali New Year – Bisket Jatra Festival. The lead up to the actual event takes days of preparation and ritual, one of which had started before we got here – and that was the Bhairab chariot procession. The chariot is a three-storey cumbersome and lop-sided beast that is assembled in the square and then laboriously dragged and pushed through the streets of Bhaktapur, which takes several days. This honour is determined by tug-o-war between the upper and lower halves of the city – the first of three such battles of strength integral to this festival.
The other tug-o-war clashes involve gigantic poles. One of these is a 25m long ceremonial pole that is raised with ropes by the men of the city – a dangerous operation. The next day, on Nepali New Year’s Day, there would be a tug-o-war between the residents in the attempt to pull the pole over to their side. This would explain the presence of the ambulance in the middle of Taumadhi Tole, ready on standby, as in the past people have died from these dangerous feats. It would also account for the presence of fully decked out riot police at the ready in strategic positions (like the top level of temples). They are poised in case the masses of people need to be ‘held back’ in their eagerness to strip ‘lucky’ bits of wood off the fallen pole. This ritual is repeated with a smaller ‘female’ pole after the falling of its male counterpart has marked the official beginning of the New Year.
As the ‘male’ pole was already standing tall (if on a definite lean!) awaiting its toppling the next day, we decided to avoid the growing crowd and headed to the rooftop restaurant Sunny Café on the same square for a traditional special Newari meal, consisting of daal, curry, salad, rice, curd, spinach and garlic, and watched the people bustle below. The street food vendors were cranking out some hot, compact parcels that comfortably fit in one hand, and hawkers were holding their wares aloft on long thin poles so customers could easily find them in the crowds. Colourful clothes and smiling faces were everywhere you turned. The ‘buzz’ was exciting, and everyone was eager for the climax tomorrow.
Our Kathmandu story continues…
Read our full Kathmandu story here:
Part 1: Thamel & Durbar Square
Part 2: Patan
Part 3: Pashupatinath & Boudha
Part 4: Kirtipur & Nagarkot
Part 5: Changu Narayan & Bhaktapur
Part 6 (current): Namobuddah & NYE in Bhaktapur
Part 7: Bisket Jatra in Bhaktapur
Our guide was Rajesh Shahi
He can be contacted on Facebook or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos of Kathmandu before and after the 2015 earthquake – BBC News
Is it time to go back to Nepal? – Lonely Planet