(by Marilyn Stablein, who lived in India & Nepal between 1966 & 1972).
In 1966 travellers from Istanbul to Oxford dreamed of journeying to Kathmandu for Christmas.
Today Western Buddhists, Tibetans living abroad, and indigenous Himalayan Buddhists from Ladhak to Assam make the annual pilgrimage to Bodhnath on the outskirts of Kathmandu to celebrate Tibetan Losar, New Year festivities.
In February 2008, in the dead of winter my daughter Sunita and I set out on our own pilgrimage to Nepal. Thirty-six years had passed since I lived in Nepal.
The last two years of my seven-year sojourn abroad culminated with my marriage and the birth of my son Willie in Nepal. Shortly thereafter Sunita began life’s journey in Kathmandu where she was conceived. This was her first actual trip and my first trip back.
In the last few decades the population has tripled. Before when I was pregnant with Sunita I walked across rice paddies and mustard fields with baby Willie strapped to my back to visit the two existing rural Tibetan monasteries in Bodhnath. There are now more than thirty monasteries in the once rural locale.
Tibetan New Year, a bustling and festive time of the year, is an auspicious time to travel. Our hotel faced the famous Bodhnath stupa, the holy shrine where some of Buddha’s relics were entombed. Like the other famous Swayambhunath stupa to the west of Kathmandu, immense pairs of painted, wide-open, elongated eyes gaze out over the four directions.
Tibetans traditionally circumambulate holy sites. During New Year festivities the crowds swelled so that hundreds of visitors joined the normally popular korwa, the circling path. The constant stream of people represented a cross-section of Nepalese, Tibetans, and foreigners. I could pick out tribal people by their dress and lamas and monks from various Buddhist traditions and countries by the color of their robes.
A small town of single story shops and restaurants in the early 1970’s, the buildings circling the stupa now rise five stories. After a climb up four flights of stairs we enjoyed a view of the surrounding area from one of the rooftop garden terraces. The Himalayan snowcapped peaks, visible every day when I lived in Vijayeswari, sparkled in the distance on our flight in. Every day we scanned the horizon for another glimpse but an obscuring, dense smog masked the mountains Nepal is famous for.
The menu offered a mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian cuisine as well as Nepali versions of pizza, ice cream, muffins, cakes and pastries. My favorite food was the Tibetan noodle soup and dumplings, thupa and momos.
The day before the New Year volunteers skilfully tossed buckets of lime whitewash like a new coat of paint over the bulbous exterior of the stupa. Vendors around the circuit sold strings of colorful prayer flags, auspicious offerings. The old, faded weather-worn flags came down and new flags were strung in all directions from the top of the main spire. Motorized traffic was kept out. A constant stream of pilgrims recited prayers, and burned butter lamps and incense. The pilgrim frenzy that intensified as Losar approached reminded me of the Hindu Kumbha Mela in Hardwar, the largest gathering on the planet, visible from the moon.
One morning at 4am from bed I could hear the deep resonating drums calling the monks at one or more of the thirty monasteries in the vicinity to prayer. The vibration rose from the ground and penetrated the floors and walls of our second floor room. Another morning the sounds of a marching Nepali brass band lured me from bed before sunrise. I quickly dressed and from the street outside watched the parade: dozens of colorfully dressed Nepalis carried ceremonial brass trays adorned with offerings of special holiday breads, fruits, candles, and incense.
We took a side trip to Thamel, a shopping district in Kathmandu. Shop after shop offered hand-loomed cotton clothing, embroidered shawls, intricate bronze statues, spices, art, and books.
Amazingly there are three English language newspapers and more English language bookstores in Kathmandu than there are in Albuquerque where I live.
At Pilgrims Book House I met with owner Ram Tiwari, who published my last book, Sleeping in Caves: A Sixties Himalayan Memoir, under his Pilgrims Publishing imprint. His two-story store had the largest collection I’d ever seen of oriental and Buddhist studies, Himalayan travel literature, geographical guidebooks, trekking maps, Nepalese and Tibetan art, photography, Hinduism, Newari crafts, and Nepalese history. We enjoyed chai and a samosa snack in the spacious cafe in a lush garden courtyard.
As planned I connected with old friends: Shiv Mirabito, publisher of Shivastan Publishing from Woodstock; Keith Dowman who resides south of Bodhnath and Ian Alsop from Santa Fe.
There were unplanned surprise encounters with other friends like bansuri flautist Steve Gorn and artist/calligrapher Barbara Bash from the Hudson Valley. We joined up with them to share a car and driver then toured some historical villages in other parts of the valley.
At Namo Buddha, the site where one of the previous incarnations of the Buddha offered his body to feed a starving tigress and her cubs, we purchased new prayer flags to add to the already full array of flags.
Tibetans wrote their names on the flags for extra luck. Since I was the only one in our party who knew how to write in Tibetan (neither the driver nor the guide could read or write it), I dutifully wrote out everyone’s name. I also took the occasion to write out my son Willie’s name on a flag. Ever since he passed eight years ago I wanted to make the journey to Nepal as a tribute to his life, to complete a cycle that began with his birth in Nepal. Sunita and I observed an emotional short period of silence in his honor.
There were surprise encounters with old friends from the past, drawn to the Losar celebrations, like Arthur Mandelbaum, and Phil Void – founder of the Dharma Bums, a rock band now based in India. I didn’t recognize surbahar player Steve Landsberg nor long time Nepal resident Addison Smith after thirty-six years.
Our favorite side trip was to Pharping. We avoided the Hindu temple where animals were sacrificed to the Goddess Kali and visited the adjacent Tibetan village. Thirty Seven years ago on a picnic outing with one of my Tibetan teachers, Chatral Rinpoche, he showed me the land where he planned to build a new monastery. Now amazingly there are half a dozen monasteries on the surrounding forested hills. When I visited his monastery next to a cave where Padma Sambhava once meditated, nostalgia overwhelmed me: the lush beauty of the lotus ponds, the forested hills, and the serene setting.
While change is inevitable, not all of the changes in Nepal have been for the better. There is still no central heat in the guest houses. Temperature dropped to thirty degrees at night and without heat in our hotel it was cold enough to warrant sleeping in long johns. On a visit to Nagarkot, a village situated at an altitude of 8000 feet, I added a knit hat to my bedtime attire.
Poverty is still pervasive. Many of the poor still have no running water. Women wash clothes at ancient public faucets then fill large brass water pots to lug drinking water back home. Government planning did not foresee the burgeoning population’s electricity needs. As a result there were power outages, rolling black outs, for eight hours a day. In addition to the inconvenience there was the added confusion of a schedule that changed daily. We kept candles and a box of matches by our bedside and hoped when we ordered a meal at a restaurant that the kitchen could function in the dark or when we wanted a hot shower that the water would be hot.
Years ago banana leaves served as naturally organic 100% recyclable plates. Wandering cows gobbled up the leaves. Now non-biodegradable plastic water bottles and shopping bags litter the landscape. When people burn garbage at night in the streets for warmth the awful stench of burning plastic further blackens the already sooty air.
Since our visit was two months before the highly politicized elections, a strike and roadblock near the Indian border halted the normal supplies of petrol, heating, and cooking oil from India. With all the gas stations out of petrol it was difficult getting transportation. A typical long snaking petrol pump line―separate lines for buses, trucks and motorbikes―was over a kilometer long. Tire burning demonstrations and protests in the streets stopped traffic and sickened the already polluted air. The Maoists, whose underground revolutionary campaign during the last decade accounted for thousands of deaths, won a majority of votes in the election. A new democracy in Nepal replaced an unpopular monarchy.
It’s only been a little over fifty years since Nepal first opened its doors to foreigners. While many visit the Himalayan peaks or the ancient wooden Newari temples to enjoy the intricate craftsmanship of metalworkers and wood carvers, there are also foreigners who come to offer assistance. Many international organizations sponsor programs in Nepal to address the problems of health, birth control, women’s rights, literacy, and education. Student sponsorships enable poor students to get an education. The literacy rate is climbing. A new generation of travellers, young teachers, doctors and veterinarians, volunteer their time to help in village schools and clinics.
With a new democratic government and a steady stream of individuals and organizations that make valuable contributions, Nepal’s future looks brighter.
(A version of this article was published in New Perspectives: A Journal of Conscious Living, Winter 2009).
CONTEXT & LINKS: (people & places mentioned) …
Losar – the Tibetan New Year holiday period.
Boudhanath – a massive stupa & village/buddhist suburb of Kathmandu, seven miles from the city centre, with many monasteries. A research centre.
Patan – with Bhadgaon & Kathmandu, one of the three ancient towns of the Kathmandu valley in Nepal.
Namo Buddha – a stupa in Kathmandu, near the National Museum. Associated with the Buddha & a tiger sacrifice.
Pharping – a village near Kathmandu.
Nagarkot – another village, 32 km east of Kathmandu.
Chatral Rinpoche – a renowned Dzogchen master (Tibetan Buddhism).
Shivastan Publishing – Shiv Mirabito, owner/publisher.
Pilgrims Book House – Ram Tiwari, owner/publisher.
Keith Dowman – researcher/author/translator, Tibetan Buddhism & language. Enjoy his Masters of Enchantment: The Lives and Legends of the Mahasiddhas with paintings by Robert Beer & find his many other books on Amazon USA as well.
Addison Smith – see his Tales of Uncle Tompa – The Legendary Rascal of Tibet (illustrated by Addison Smith & translated by Rinjing Dorje, pub. Dorje Ling 1975, republished 1997) – reviewed in Kailash – A Journal of Himalayan Studies Vol IV 1976. Scans at http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/kailash/pdf/ via The Digital Himalaya Project, based at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, UK.
Steve Landsberg – musician (surbahar) & musical researcher. Surbahar is a classical Indian stringed instrument rather larger than the Sitar which it resembles but has an extraordinary deep tone. Enjoy his Night and Beyond: Ragas of Indian Music (CD at Amazon USA) & other recordings
Arthur Mandelbaum – researcher/translator, Tibetan Buddhism & language, Sanskrit language. See The Lamp of Liberation (with Terry Clifford Eds – Amazon USA).
Ian Alsop – researcher/scholar runs AsianArt.Com – “The on-line journal for the study and exhibition of the arts of Asia”.
Phil Void – founder of The Dharma Bums – a Buddhist rock band.
Marilyn Stablein is a born storyteller & has written extensively about her years in India and Nepal & on other matters. Start with Sleeping in Caves: A Sixties Himalayan Memoir & find her other books on Amazon as well.