Nepal is a place associated with the distant and the incredible.
I’ve always wanted to return to this mysterious country if not for this pandemic which made it impossible to travel. I can still remember the thousands of visitors who savour the spirit of Nepal each year going home laden with things considered “Nepalese” – religious objects, antiques, carpets, pottery, embroidered clothing, gems and silver. You can see the excitement on their faces as they carry their amazing finds.
It was closed to autumn when we visited, so you can just imagine the cool weather condition. Even during summer time, the weather is unpredictable and it varies considerably with elevation. Looking at the photos we took then, the skies were clear and sunny, temperature range from warm in the lowlands to crisp in the mountains. We stayed a week so we ignored the weather and just seized the moment and enjoyed its mystique.
Nepal’s splendour will forever be registered in your mind. As you walk through the roads and alleys, you experience the intense culture of the Hindus and slowly submerge into the quiet serenity of the Buddhists.
The practice of religion in Nepal is a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist ways of life, which the Nepalese have merged. These beliefs are evident in their art as well as their surroundings.
Wandering into the heart of Kathmandu, up and down narrow alleys and passages, you pass little shops and old houses with intricately carved window frames. The shops sell thangkas (religious paintings) and shawls made from pashmina in different colours and quality. Their appearance startling in the dusty dimness. Every lane seems to lead to a little square. Soon you’ll find roving in Durbar Square encircled by gilded spires and domes of countless temples. I hate to think of the recent fire that gutted many houses, stores and temples in Kathmandu. I can just imagine the elaborately carved windows, pillars, domes and beams destroyed by the fire. Looking back, Durbar Square is an amazing sight. Every corner shelters a shrine which houses a God such as Ganesh (the elephant headed God) or Hanuman (the monkey God); carved on the side of a phallic representation of the Hindu God, Shiva is Buddha. All around, pigeons flutter from rooftop to rooftop.
About thirty minutes from Kathmandu is the city of Patan. It offers a feast of diverse temple styles. The maze of temple shrines, small stupas and stupas, grinning Gods and Goddesses all intricately carved and ornamented give pleasure to the eye and bewilder the mind.
As you explore the Pashupatinath Temple area, you are surrounded by vendors selling all types of wares – from bangles to beaded necklaces with yak bone pendants to musical bowls. Swarming the temples are sadhus, Hindu holy men. Their bodies covered with yellow powder and ashes, they perform a myriad of self-mutilating feats as they go about their day to day existence. Saddhus have chosen to give up their material lives and walk about meditating in search for inner peace. They wander barefoot across the country on pilgrimage, receiving their sustenance from generous people.
At Bodnath Shrine stands the largest and most important stupa outside of Tibet. It sits on a flatland with the Buddha’s eye painted on four sides. These eyes seem to follow and watch your every move. Buddhists come from all over the world to visit this predominantly Tibetan shrine. Chanting can be heard from as far as five hundred metres reverberating around the site, adding to the feeling of peace that envelops the place. Colourful prayer flags have been strung by pilgrims. Even more fascinating than the impressive structure of Bodnath are the calm, spiritual people who throng to this temple.
At Nagarkot which is 2,195 metres above sea level with a magnificent panoramic view of the Himalayas, a splendid full moon covers the entire valley below. It’s breathtaking especially in the morning is the cleansing breeze, accompanied by chirping birds and the aroma of wild and yet delicate flowers.
Golden yellow mustard flowers fill the fields around Bhaktapur. Walking the village streets paved with bricks and cobblestones, is quite an adventure. Black eyed children peering from window smile sweetly as I pass. Men are seen sitting or chatting quietly with each other while the women are working so hard gathering wood for cooking or carrying large baskets of ripened fruits and vegetables. I see an older woman bent over almost touching the ground, carries a load of dried twigs and a younger woman driving a flock of goats.
It is a long zigzag and dusty road inside the village but it is worth it. There are woodcarving shops, you can appreciate the intricate window frames, so different from the ones found in other parts of Asia. You can appreciate the warm and friendly people. Their faces show no sign of bitterness because of poverty, instead they seem to be happy and content.
My time in Nepal was a spiritual awakening in some ways. Due to the sensitivity of the scene I have decided not to show any photos of what I had experienced… the cremation ceremony along the Bagmati River. I feel humbled to be able to witness how fellow humans with different beliefs, practice their faith at the time of returning the body to its creator. I watched the grief, a heartbreaking scene, and take the time to reflect on body, mind and soul.
After a week, I feel that I’ve barely scratch the surface. It will take me more than a month to fully understand the spirit of Nepal. Truly Nepal is a very interesting country. The uniqueness of the culture makes it an exciting place to visit. I have only begun.
by Arlene Rafiq