As we drove up the mountain towards the hotel in Nagarkot at the end of day 2 in Nepal, it began to rain. It was a welcome relief after a hot and dusty day touring around in Katmandu and the area. We cracked the windows open and our guide suggested turning off the air conditioning, which we readily agreed to. Once out of the city, the road up the mountain was a windy snaking thing that normally would have been more pleasant to drive up, what with the beautiful green vistas. But the traffic persisted even here where there were not so many cars, but still narrow roads and unpredictable traffic forcing the driver to honk as he drove around every single turn. It was around 4 pm and our nerves were a little shot.
It had been a reasonably good day, although really hot at times. We started out in “downtown” Kathmandu touring Durbar Square, where I somehow had had the impression before getting there that we would find office buildings and a more modern environment. Nope. A partially restored palace, temples, mostly dirt streets and winding alleyways. Kathmandu and the surrounding cities we visited in general seemed to be in a fairly active state of restoration. Different country sponsors from around the globe (US, Austria, Germany to name a few), were sending money to help bring these ancient monuments back to life. Also, the country had learned that once restored (for instance the city of Bhaktapur, not far from Kathmandu, has been beautifully restored), it can actually charge tourists just to enter the city to look around. A fair trade for us.
We walked around the main square, ducking at one point into a little building to meet the “living goddess,” who apparently appeared in public upon command on a fairly regular basis. But…she refused to appear for us, despite pleas from a number of guides who wanted to show off the perfect beauty of one of the 9 living goddesses. The goddess(es) is called the “Kumari Devi.” She is a young girl who lives in the building known as the Kumari Ghar, right beside Kathmandu’s Durbar Square.
From time immemorial the practice of worshipping an ordinary pre-pubescent girl as a source of supreme power has been an integral part of both Hinduism and Buddhism. (We managed to meet a village Kumari Devi the next day).
Our guide walked us through the old streets of Kathmandu, showing us where the hippies used to hang out smoking pot on the steps of the temples, where we saw Sadhus (holy men) greeting and posing with tourists (apparently some are “real” Sadhus and some are tourist attractions…and our guide couldn’t tell the difference, not that it really mattered), where beautifully painted rickshaws occasionally pulled a local from one side of the city to another, where copper pots and kettles and pans hung tempting me from little storefronts (i resisted), and where momos (Nepalese dumplings stuffed with meat and vegetables) were steamed in huge steamers and you could take a handful of them to go. We even ran across a scene being filmed for a local movie.
Getting up to this point was no problem. But getting down was the usual craziness for me because of my fear of heights….with stomach in my throat I somehow made it down the steps.
Next on the agenda was something we had reservations about seeing. We drove to one of the most famous active temples: Pashupatinath. It sat right next to the Bagmati river where cremation rites were held every day. This too, was a tourist attraction. Hawkers tried to sell us meditation bowls and other trinkets when we got out of the car. As we drew closer, the smell of burning flesh permeated the air. We got out on the far side of the river and listened to the guide as he explained the cremation ritual – who attended, when it was held, how it all worked. The time it took for a body to burn (about 3 hours), the amount of wood needed (I think he said about 200 kilos for an average body?). It was pretty jarring to see boys swimming casually in the river where chunks of burning wood and flesh were falling in just meters away.
We weren’t allowed into the temple (only Hindus allowed and our guide even told us stories of British Hindus not being allowed in because they weren’t wearing Nepalese clothing) , but were allowed a view through the doorway.
Indian/Napalese tourists all wanted photos in front of the temple. I just tried to peer inside to see what I wasn’t allowed to see.