Sunday, October 31, 2010

Kathmandu Valley

Just a few shots from my week in Nepal, roughly in chronological order.

Flying into the Kathmandu Valley, terraced fields give way to blockish multi-story concrete buildings. In the distance: Himalayas!

Four images from the great stupa at Swayambunath above Kathmandu, possibly the oldest settlement in a valley which was once a lake. Like much of Nepal, this Tibetan prayer-flag-garlanded site marries Hinduism and Buddhism without anxiety, as Ganesh's assistance of the Buddhas attests. It's OK to write all over Swayambu, I was told, as another form of veneration is to whitewash the whole thing anew... which creates the job of scraping old whitewash off so form doesn't completely vanish.

Kathmandu Durbar (palace) Square, where a gigantic British façade abuts the residence of the Kumari, the prepubescent girl venerated as the incarnation of the divine protrectress of Kathmandu. Her retinue includes a boy Ganesh. (Schooling may evidently trump his divine obligations, but not hers.) In a facing building, Shiva and his wife look out over the square, as the city's largest temple Taleju - open to the faithful (Hindu) public but once a year - presides over all.

Early morning view from the Godavari Village Resort south of Kathmandu, site of our four-day workshop. When it's clear, you can see Swayambhu hovering above Kathmandu just above the left edge of that notch in the ridge. In the mornings, the terraced fields are full of dew, some caught in intricate spider webs. Farmers decorate the paddies with fans of drying rice stalks. Atop the ridge, sacred groves and a Shiva temple surrounded with lingams, offering help to the childless.

Two great pilgrimage sites on the eastern edge of Kathmandu. Pashupatinath, sacred to Hindus - the best place to be cremated in all Nepal, surrounded by dozens of other Shaivite sites with lingams and bells. And the great stupa at Boudha, so big it filled three pictures; the area around it - all developed in the last fifty years - includes temples and monasteries, tourist shops, and at least one Italianate palazzo (!).

Kathmandu, once known as Kantipur, was one of three rival kingdoms in the valley, each with a capital and a Durbar Square. I saw the one in Patan (Lalitpur) first at night, and only later by day, when I also discovered its five-story pagoda, rich with the carved wooden struts supporting all roofs here, and the Golden Temple, which contains a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.

The third capital is Bhaktapur, home of the red brick and ornately carved wood architecture of the Newars, original inhabitants of the Valley. It's downright sleepy by comparison with Kathmandu. Even the motorcycle drivers don't navigate with one hand on their horn. And it's a few hour's walk through villages and paddies from Changu Narayan, oldest attested site in Nepal, from which one enjoys a spectacular view of sunset over the whole Kathmandu Valley.

Enough! But please don't think all of the Kathmandu Valley is historic and "Nepali" (whatever that is). The camera is drawn to the exceptional. As for the workshop which took me to Nepal, "Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalaya? More on that later, perhaps.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Call of the Himalaya

Twenty-one hours from now, I'm off - Newark to Delhi (fifteen hours), and then on to Kathmandu! While a bit disruptive for teaching, it's apparently a perfect time to visit Nepal. And while the research project "Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalaya" isn't one I'm entirely convinced I belong on, New School's India China Institute couldn't have won support for it without us in the Religious Studies program. Term or no term, I'm excited to meet scholars from India, China, Nepal and Bhutan, and in a fabled place new to me, no less...

A four-day symposium (here), with a day before and two after to look around at least a little (I'm aiming for Bhaktapur); I'll be back in the wee hours of Sunday morning, 31/10. Not sure I'll be able to blog until then.


Didn't know you could do this: Nepal is 5 hours and 45 minutes ahead of GMT. (Map source.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Old friends

Last saw each other 26 years ago, in the last years of the Cold War!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Nice religion

More results of the Faith Matters Survey (reported in American Grace) which I assembled in a handout for my Religion in Dialogue class. How very pluralistic and latitudinarian we are! How generous religious people are (but some of us knew that)! And how out of date most understandings of American religion - from all sides - turn out to be.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Scenes from a boondoggle in Seattle - 2500 miles for a 13 hour stay to assist in a recruitment event attended by only a handful of prospective students. (I have no regrets, beyond the carbon, since I got a peek of a Pacific gateway city I'd not seen before, and had dinner with a fascinating and possibly prophetic religious pioneer - details anon.)Aerial views flying in; reflections in Rem Koolhaas' stunning Seattle Public Library (notice the reflection of the water in the sound, center, and the yellow cab, top); sunset and early morning views from the roof deck of the Inn at the Market, with some local art in the middle; one of the fish swimming underfoot at Seattle Airport.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Striking Seattle

I wonder how this sign got dented.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Marriage of true minds

One of the things I never, on principle, ask my students about is their religious background. Nonetheless, I sometimes learn it about at least some students - in the case of Religious Geography of New York, I learned it about most of the students - and I noticed that many came from what could be called "non-practicing mixed religious marriages." (Jewish father, Catholic mother, etc.) This explained, I thought, their interest in religion - what was it that their parents had left and why - but also their desire to find religions compatible. This might be right.
But I was wrong to think this distinguished my students from students everywhere else - at least on the mixed religious front. (For the record, I'm the child of parents of different faith traditions myself.) It seems that religiously mixed marriages are common in the US, and have since the 1990s even become a sort of norm. Thus, at least, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 134-60. A fascinating trend, with hard to spell out implications for all sorts of things...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Getting there

In "Religion in Dialogue" today, we discussed the role of dialogue in the Book of Job - something everyone had just written a paper on. I'd told them that part of the assignment was defining "dialogue." Many students simply quoted an online dictionary definition. "If dictionaries settled all questions," I observed tartly, "there'd be no need for universities."

By the time we'd broken the Book of Job down into six or seven component exchanges, and weighed ways in which each could be seen as a dialogue - or a failed dialogue - or no dialogue at all, two students moaned "I'm so confused!" Before I could say something acerbic, another student said "But we're getting somewhere!" Vindication!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Salt of the earth

One of the joys of being in a small college (though I'm sure this joy can be found elsewhere too) is conversations with people who do very different kinds of work, and discovering unexpected and tantalizing affinities. A colleague of mine who is an economist - her work specializes in understanding the economics of disasters - has been interested in my work on Job for a while. Today I gave a faculty seminar on Job's friends (I argued that understanding Job as about "man and God" overlooks the important horizontal relationship between Job and his friends - a difficult relationship, but the first thing to be restored at the end) and she came. She asked some interesting questions but her real interest is in Job's encounter with God; she was intrigued by Aquinas' view (as I'd reported it) that Job was a friend of God.

Her own view, she explained, was well described by a story told by Ramakrishna, "one of our poets" (she's from Bengal):

Once a salt doll went to measure the depth of the ocean. It wanted to tell others how deep the water was. But this it could never do, for no sooner did it get into the water than it dissolved. Now, who was there to report the ocean's depth? What Brahman is cannot be described. In samadhi one attains the knowledge of Brahman -- one realises Brahman. In that state reasoning stops altogether, and man becomes mute. He has no power to describe the nature of Brahman.


Online I found a few other versions of the story. Here's one recorded by a Germaine Hornsby, who heard it from a Sandeep Chatterjee, who had heard it at Gangotri in the Himalayas:

A salt doll journeyed for thousand of miles and stopped at the edge of the sea. It was fascinated by this moving liquid mass, so unlike anything it had seen before. "What are you" asked the salt doll. "Come in and see" replied the sea with a smile. So the salt doll waded in. The further it went, the more it dissolved till there was only a pinch of it left. Before the last bit dissolved the doll exclaimed in wonder, "Now I know what I am."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Quarrel

Great film, but nearly unknown, and hard to come by. In order to show it to the "Religion in Dialogue" class I had to buy a copy, since none of our libraries (not to mention Netflix) had it. Read the original story by Chaim Grade, "My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner," on which the film is based (there was a stage adaptation along the way, too), and I think the film's much more effective - certainly for a class on dialogue! In the story, secular writer Hersh and super frum rebbe Chaim - friends from childhood who have seen each other only rarely since Chaim left the yeshiva, and as their world was destroyed by Soviets and Nazis - sit side by side in front of the old Hôtel de Ville in Paris; Hersh gives a long speech, then Chaim does, the end. The film, directed by Eli Cohen, is much warmer and in its way more optimistic about alternatives to mutual judgment - perhaps because the world had changed again between 1954, when the story was written, and 1990, when the film appeared. Chaim and Hersh meet in a park in Montréal and walk together, see other walkers, lose their way, get caught in the rain, part ways and come together again, and even dance. The unspoken, perhaps unspeakable, has a visible part.


The weather gods seem to have decided that our part of Brooklyn's a good place to try new kinds of storms. Not a month after a tornado decapitated our trees, a violent hailstorm last night pummeled the roof, pounded threateningly on windows, and scattered leaves from the still-green ginkgo down the block. Above: the sky after the storm. At right: hailstones left over in the garden this morning. Below: ginkgo appliquéd on a car this morning.