Sunday, June 8, 2008

Nepal Trip: Kumari, The Living Goddess

The views as we flew into Kathmandu were lovely - the late evening sun low across the Himalayan mountains, shining on the big, fluffy clouds, made our entry into Nepal very memorable.

The first thing that hit me as soon as we got out of the aircraft was the clean, fresh smell of the mountains. After India it was a real breath of fresh air. I noticed, on the side of our plane was the word 'Yeti'. I asked if I could photograph it. I got permission with a smile.

In the airport building we are greeted with smiles all round. The man checking our passport said to me "You remember the war?". I told him I was too little then. He then saw Ralph's date of birth and said "YOU remember big war!?" Ralph said that he did, and all was big smiles. "You come from England - very good place." We felt really welcome.

Our porter walked to the head of the queue, and put our cases up. "English," he said, pointing at the passports. Cases chalked, video camera checked, and we were away.

We were met by a lady who welcomed us with garlands of flowers. I think we are going to like Nepal. We arrived at our hotel 'Himalaya'. After dinner we watched a cultural show which was very funny, especially the yeti dance.

The next morning I threw back the curtains to get my first good view of the Himalayas. FOG!! We couldn't even see to the end of the hotel grounds.

Nepal is the only Hindu kingdom in the world, lying on the southern slopes of the Himalayas between India and Tibet. It is quite a little kingdom - about 500 miles east to west, and varying from 80 to 150 miles, north to south .

After breakfast we set off with our guide to explore the old parts of the city which are quite enchanting. Tiny streets, temples and palaces. Hundreds of little shops, and the traders are not pushy as they were in India.

Old Kathmandu was built for people - not vehicles. Even cycle rickshaws barely negotiate the throngs of shoppers and residents. The narrow streets have venerable houses crowding in on both sides, the buildings stacked one beside the other. Many residences possess intricately carved widow frames, some now splitting with age and decay.

We entered Asan Tol, one of the busiest markets in Kathmandu. There were lots of people bargaining and selling. The babel of tongues is joined by the ringing of bells, the quarreling of dogs, the chanting of prayers, the advertising of herbal medicines, and above it all, the twittering of swallows and swifts as they dart to nests beneath the eaves of the houses.

We entered a sturdy building through a low passage guarded on both sides by large stone lions. We found ourselves in a small courtyard overlooked by massive and elaborately carved window frames. This is where Kumari - the living goddess - lives. The Kumari is selected by the priests as a young child from the community of the Sakya (goldsmith) clan, and reigns until puberty. She is designated a living goddess, and is recognised by all the different religions in their different ways, and worshipped even by the king. She has to stay confined to her palace, and can only leave it on special religious occasions. The priests have ways and means of delaying puberty, and often a Kumari is into her twenties before it occurs - sometimes even keeping her "baby" teeth until that time.

Many stories circulate about how she came to be venerated, a popular version goes: "Once upon a time, the beautiful goddess Taleju, the protective deity of the royal family, was playing cards and dice with the king. Beside himself with her beauty, the king tried to touch the goddess, whereupon she vanished from sight. But not wishing to leave the kingdom unprotected, the goddess indicated that she would return in the form of a virgin who must be worshiped as if she were the goddess herself".

Kumari will come to the window if called, and she appeared twice when we were standing in the courtyard. She is always dressed in red, and she looked a very spoilt and petulant young lady. But who could wonder at that?

When she matures, the unfortunate girl is replaced by a new selection, and goes back to live in her original village. No longer a goddess, but obviously not capable of returning to the life of an ordinary citizen. She very rarely marries, as potential suitors are scared off. It seemed to us a pretty dreadful fate for a young girl to be taken from her home so young, and to have to lead such a life.

Wandering on through Durbar Square, our guide introduced us to "My friend, who is very good at palmistry." So, sitting on the steps of a temple, in the middle of Kathmandu, we both had our palms read. My health is fine. Money will never be a problem. I will travel a lot up to the age of 65. I should write - I could make money writing. And if I write, I should wear my birthstone - a ruby - on my right hand. I am strong-willed (has he been talking to Ralph?) and if I want something, it is in my power to get it. My lucky number is 4, and lucky days are Monday and Tuesday. He told me other things, but I can't remember it all.

Then came Ralph's turn. He wasn't overly keen, but I convinced him. I got most of Ralph's "fortune telling" on the video. He did mention a heart problem - which is OK now. He shouldn't drink too much - but it is OK to drink on Fridays! He would be lucky if he gambled, but he shouldn't bet - not sure where the fine distinction lies! Money comes easily. And goes easily. His lucky number is 1. He also told Ralph that he could write, and dammit! that he could write better than me!! Well, I suppose he couldn't get everything right!

Anyway it was great fun, and we collected quite a crowd of spectators. The man reading our palms got quite worried when the crowd closed in - I think it spoilt his concentration.

Kathmandu is a remarkable city, though it is nothing like any other 'city' I have ever been in. You can wander around, feeling quite safe and unthreatened. There were children playing hopscotch on the pavement. The people seemed so happy, everywhere was so clean. The streets in places are very narrow, and the houses heavily and beautifully carved.

We went into Kasthamandap Temple, which is where Kathmandu derives its name. Kathmandu is a combination of two words: 'kath' (wood) and 'mandu' (temple). This temple was built entirely from the timber of a single tree. It's hard to believe when you see it and it measures about thirty feet square, and though it is open on all sides, it's a solid two-storey building - so it must have been some tree!! The building stands three tiers high, with much of the superstructure weight resting on four massive wooden columns. The core of the tree stands as a pillar in the middle of the temple; If you have any aches or pains, you rub the affected part on this pillar, and all will be well. Our guide told us he had tennis elbow not long ago, and the doctors couldn't seem to cure it. He came every day for two weeks, and rubbed his elbow on the pillar. And it got better. His story, not mine. And he does have a very tongue-in-cheek dry sense of humour. Anyway I rubbed my neck on it, but suspected I would need to do this for a couple of weeks. The wood is worn very smooth where people come to rub their painful parts against it.

There was a sweet little girl here, who went into the shrine in the temple for a dab of red pigment which she put on our foreheads. The sign is known as "tika" and it is a gesture of welcome from the god.

Kathmandu is a valley of bells. Bells peal deeply in distant temple grounds. Large bells - rarely plain, most are elaborate affairs and some are intricately engraved. There is a continuous sound of bells - many of the temples are hung with bells, and it is a mark of respect to the deity to give a ring in passing. We gave one for our friend Ganesh, the elephant god who we came across in India. Ganesh is also much in evidence here, too.

We saw a window that in 1989 was being cleaned by a team of Germans, and only then it was discovered that the central section was of solid gold, and the sections of either side were of solid ivory. One wonders how many more things of this sort might be laying undiscovered in a place like this.

Our next stop was to see Swayambhunath Temple - the oldest Buddhist shrine amongst many in the Kathmandu Valley. Leaving our car halfway up the hill we climbed past painted images of Buddhas, various peddlers and craftsmen. We watched several who were carving prayer stones. People buy them and then take them to the temples and shrines as offerings.

We walked right roung the stupa. There were a number of other temples, Hindu as well as Buddhist, in fact, there was quite a community up there.

There are prayer wheels mounted all around the base of the stupa, and people were constantly going round, spinning them. There are 211 prayer wheels that encircle the white dome at shoulder height. These Tibetan Buddhist instruments hold the sacred mantra and other prayers, they become activated with a clockwise motion (with each revolution, prayers are stored in heaven on the supplicant's behalf). We saw quite a number of boy trainee monks.

Two hundred feet above the Valley floor is dominated by the main Swayambhu Stupa, its white dome and gilded tower, all flag-bedecked, and the "pairs of eyes" of the prophet gazing in all directions (one pair for each compass point). They are painted in orange, white, blue and black. Between each set of eyes, in the position of a nose, is a figure resembling a question mark, which represents the Vedic symbol for the number "1" - the figure signifying Buddha's primacy among the gods, and the eyes his eternal watchfulness over his followers. This site has traditionally been held sacred for over twenty centuries. We are surrounded by numerous shrines, idols, curio shops and an active monastery, the entire area bustling with local people. There was a feeling of friendly peace up there, we would have liked to stay longer.

After lunch we went to a wildlife park where we met our elephant, and climbed aboard. We plodded up through the woods. The sunlight was filtering through the trees. It was very peaceful, and very beautiful. Our elephant plodded on up some very steep and narrow paths that you could never have got a Landrover up, and had us holding our breath. He seemed to go very slowly, carefully picking where to put his feet down securely, aided by the mahout. But he covered the ground very well, all the same. It was great fun, just being up on top of the elephant.

About halfway round the ride, high up in the woods, I noticed that we were silhouetted against the hillside - all three of us and the elephant. I asked the mahout to stop, so that I could photograph the silhouetted shadow, which I did.

The mahout commanded the elephant to go down on its knees, then he jumped off, took my camera, and took some photographs of Ralph and me on top of the elephant. Then, to my horror, he commanded the elephant to stand up!! So there we were, up on high, with our mahout down on the ground.

The funny thing was that I had been reading a book on tiger hunting the night before, and I had just read a chapter about:

"If your mahout should have an accident, or get killed!! here are a
few commands you will find useful."

There was I, frantically trying to remember some of the commands. All that would come to mind was "How to get your elephant to salute." Why one should be concerned about getting the elephant to salute when one's mahout had just been killed, I couldn't quite figure. I wondered if any of my dog training commands would help.

Well, I needn't have worried. At a command, the elephant put down his trunk, and the mahout climbed up it - strap-hanging on the ears, while the elephant raised his trunk and deposited the mahout back on the top of his head, where he belonged.

We ambled back to the centre. When we got there we asked the mahout to do his trunk climbing act again so I could photograph it, which he duly did.

It had been a perfect afternoon, perfect weather, beautiful countryside, a super elephant, and a mahout with a wicked sense of humour!

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