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.

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