“A Year in Nepal” is a book I have been writing since the beginning of this year, 2019. I’d got to my 6th chapter and somehow ran out of steam, lots of ideas, content, adventures, but just couldn’t continue or explain it! I let it sit there for two months, and despite encouragement from friends in Kathmandu, nothing! So, I’ve decided to try something completely different. Every week, Wednesday’s, I’ll post one of my chapters for comment, feedback good or bad, it will all be absorbed. If there’s silence, that tells me something too. Let me ask everyone stopping by here for help, do please comment, reblog, Facebook it, etc etc., all will be accepted, acknowledged, replied to. Here’s the third chapter, regarding some history of Nepal: (You should start from previous chapters published here Our Book, A Year in Nepal)
HISTORY:“A TALE OF THREE CITIES”
I had just spent the last 4 days running a Leadership programme for 20 principals of Kathmandu primary schools and was virtually brain dead! I dragged myself out of bed wondering just how much good I’d done, or damage maybe, when the delegates got back to their schools only to find that the incompetence and politicisation of their teachers negated everything they’d learned. I needed to slow my racing thoughts down and take a “walk back in time”, slowly, very slowly.
The taxi dropped me off at Basantapur, the end of New Road, with a right turn leading to the ancient area of Ason, my wife’s birthplace, though she wasn’t with me this morning choosing to visit her younger brother in Thapathali. Straight ahead of me was Basantapur, itself leading to Durbar Square, and to my left a road leading to Freak Street, the original hippy “nest”, and to Himalayan Tea Corner my favourite tea shop on the whole planet. But today I needed to escape tea, tourists, trekkers and ticket touts …. a little time wandering amongst the original Newar people of Kathmandu would do me good. So I turned right and began my much practiced Kathmandu shuffle towards Indra Chowk and Naiken Tol where I have some favourite street stalls for browsing and buying a few trinkets. At the first junction I arrived at what we have always called Bead Lane and Bangle Alley for the obvious reasons of what most stalls sell. I love the colours of the beads and bangles sold here in a very dense area of stalls, and I always stop to admire the continuous flow of new creations from the craftsmen-merchants. As usual I picked a few brightly coloured items for friends children back home in England. I followed the tried and trusted formula of buying anything from street sellers in Nepal ….. whatever price they ask, half it then half it again to begin your counter offer! It always works and today was no different as I ended up paying around half of the original price. I stuffed the trinkets into my shoulder bag and wandered on towards Ason Tole.
This stretch of earth packed road has a different feel to it, these are not tourist stalls but shops for locals selling carpets, electrical goods, fabrics, brassware for religious and kitchen purposes. Scrupulously calculated and fair prices too … I know, because I have three relatives with businesses in this street!
I stopped first to nod a hello to Suresh, one of my brothers-in-law, who owns a shop selling brass and copper “items” ranging from water pots to Buddhas. He speaks absolutely no English but I was determined this morning to find out his method for calculating the price he charges local customers. He has a young assistant in his shop who speaks a little English and I got him to understand what I wanted. He told Suresh what I wanted to know and after a little laughter he held up several brass weights alongside a large brass balance I had seen many times before, but always thought it was something for sale! Everything is weighed then multiplied by a standard number of rupees for each type of item. It might be 10 rupees per gram for a water pot, 12 rupees per gram for a simple Buddha and so on. Simple!
I continued on my way and passed Sailesh, another brother-in-Law, in his electrical goods shop who I could see was very busy with lots of customers. This shop seems a bit out of place here selling kettles, microwaves, irons, food mixers …. but he must do well as he’s the only one amongst the sellers of brass, carpets, fabrics, incense and clothing. At this point I took a short diversion approaching Ason Tole down a narrow alleyway emerging into a small, dark chowk enclosed on all sides by wooden houses, medieval style, reaching several storeys into the sky. The one on my right was 12/23 Ason Tole, the house of my wife’s birth and upbringing, now owned by her two surviving brothers who rent it out but don’t live here themselves. I have stayed in this house a few times and had family meals here many times too, the first being back in 1983 when Champa’s parents still lived here. It’s classical Newar style, made from wood and extended upwards adding layer after layer for 6 storeys finally culminating in an open rooftop floor where the ducks were kept, decorated with flowerpots and mostly used for clothes washing and hanging to dry. It was also the place for kite flying during the Dashain festival in September/October. The kitchen was on the 5th floor with its clay fire stove so as not to smoke out the whole house, reducing the fire risk too! Back down at ground level, in the enclosed chowk, was a well producing water for washing …. but certainly not for drinking! Drinking water was brought in large brass and terracotta pots filled from taps located back in the street towards Naiken Tole.
I returned to the street and continued to Ason Tole, a major market area of Kathmandu with stalls of fruit, vegetables, rice, pulses, spices, coloured dyes all worthy of urban street photography. Take your time, you won’t find a better market photo opportunity in the whole city and I always notice a new vegetable or fruit to photograph, or an interesting collection of people chatting dressed in their colourful sarees. Now, don’t panic, you will not be the first foreigner to lose your bearings and sense of direction at this point. There are SEVEN exit streets here, just ask someone to point towards Tyauda or Thaihity! I sometimes take the exit that leads me into the street where there are only meat and fish shops, but most tourists do it only once …. I’ll leave you to guess why this might be!
I continued on my way towards Thaihity today because I still needed a little contemplation time and I was thinking of sitting for a little while at an area my wife knows as Seagall. However Google maps shows it as Naghal just before Thaihity with a left turn down a narrow lane of Tibetan shops for about 30 metres. A small square has been well maintained by Tibetans who settled here in Kathmandu and you will be rewarded with a quiet peaceful spot for more photos alongside a Buddhist stupa and monastery. I walked around the small stupa in the traditional clockwise direction, trying still to empty my head of the mind numbing activity of the past 4 days in which I had tried to instil a modicum of leadership in a group of primary school principals. Running an NGO with a goal of improving the quality of education in primary schools was emotionally far more draining than running your own management consultancy in the UK financial services industry! Slowly but surely my “personal mantra” of “all states of being are determined by mind, it is mind that leads the way” dissipated the frustration and even the anger I felt about the awful level of primary education in Nepal and the fact that nobody seemed to care about it except the myriad of small internationally organised NGOs such as ourselves, but that’s for another chapter. And if you’re wondering about my personal mantra, they’re the opening lines of the Dhammapada, an English translation of many of the sayings of Buddha and one that also sat easily with me as a professional psychologist.
I felt refreshed and calmer even as I continued the few extra hundred yards to Thaihity passing the many shops of Tibetans or local Newars selling cloths, sarees, prayer flags, wall hangings and all at local prices. But you look like a tourist ….. so bargain hard! Rule of thumb, whatever they ask for, half it then half it again! When you enter Thaihity, another square with about 5 exits, look opposite and slightly right. That’s the street to Thamel, the “tourist central” of Kathmandu and, if you’re tired …. take a rickshaw as there are always plenty here. And remember to bargain hard! Today I continued my walk towards the main entrance to Thamel in Tridevi Marg where I would find the best bank, best coffee shop and best pizzas …. Himalayan Bank, Himalayan Java, Fire & Ice!
Taking a walk like this can get you closer to understanding the history and cultural background to Nepal. In Ason very little has changed in the past 50 years, streets, buildings, shops, foodstuffs, religious icons, daily rituals, annual festivals ….. you will see and feel far more history here than in any visit to the Durbar Square areas of the Three Cities, each overflowing with tourists and street rip-off sharks trying to sell you some piece of garbage for several pounds sterling but worth a few rupees at best. I also find it bizarre that each of the three squares nowadays requires tourists to pay a fee to walk around what is essentially a public area of the particular city. You don’t actually go inside anything and actually it is now blocked to you if you want to get, say, from Basantapur to Chettrapati in a few hundred yards instead of a one mile detour around Thaihity! Can you imaging tourists having to pay to walk around the area of Westminster or Trafalgar Square in London, or Times Square New York? I used to sit most days on the rooftop of Taleju Cafe with a beer at lunchtime or watching the sun go down, but no longer if I have to pay a fee just to get to it in the middle of Durbar Square!
Despite this, the background to The Three Cities, the Three Durbar Squares, and the formation of Nepal is interesting and not often explored by short stay tourists and trekkers, so here’s a bit of guidance in my non guide book!
Once upon a time there were three small kingdoms called Kantipur, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur, but you probably know them better by their modern day names of Kathmandu, Patan, and of course Bhaktapur. There were many other city states in the country now called Nepal including Kirtipur, Nuwakot and …… Gorkha, and it was from this latter state that King Prithvi Narayan Shah set out to conquer them all, finally achieving his aim in 1768 and creating the extended Kingdom of Gorkha. If you are wondering about the name “Gorkha”, you’d be correct in recognising it as the origin of the Gurkha warriors or soldiers in today’s British army.
Bhaktapur is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and we decided to spend a day here with the kids as part of our immersion into Nepal’s history and culture. By now we were really starting to feel like tourists! Taxi rides, city visits, looking at temples, palaces, museums ….. A different experience from meeting and visiting family, sharing food, family stories and living almost the Nepali way. These were the thoughts buzzing around as we got out of the taxi at the entrance to Bhaktapur Durbar Square. To get here we had driven past brickworks and kilns belching smoke into the atmosphere next to acres and acres of agricultural land of rice and so many vegetable fields. This area is the food basket of Kathmandu and the home to the Newari Jyapu (farmers) and also to Newar Craftsmen famed especially for their wood carving skills.
We stood alongside the Palace of 55 Windows and marvelled at the intricate wood carved frames before entering the Wood Carving Museum with examples of the craftsmen’s work. Next stop was the National Art Gallery which was just full of amazing Buddhist paintings known as Thangka in Tibetan or Paubha in Nepali. These are depictions of Buddhist symbolism such as Buddhas, Mandala or the Wheel of Life. It is a very skilled artist and religious minded person who can do this sort of thing and some are worth a small fortune.
We didn’t stay long in here and were soon out into the sunshine again staring up at the amazing Nyatapola, the five levelled pagoda in the centre of Durbar Square. On each of the level of steps leading up to the main structure there is a guardian in increasing strength; wrestlers, elephants, lions, griffins, goddess.
Opposite was another similar structure, The Nyatapola Café, and we climbed the rickety stairs to get a balcony seat overlooking the square and drank lassi and coke, a cooling relief in the monsoon heat before beginning our wandering again around the streets with their terracotta and brick houses. In a short time we had visited two small cottage industries, one making mustard oil, the other a small pottery where outside was row upon row of clay pots drying in the sun. It was here that one of the locals, overwhelmed with curiosity about us and our children, gave us a terracotta pot of yoghurt to eat …… lovely stuff, the best yoghurt we had ever eaten ….. Bhaktapur yoghurt!
The final memory to hold of this fantastic time in this beautiful city is of Sharon’s sandal strap coming off and finding a street cobbler to stitch it back together again for the princely sum of 50 paise which is half a rupee and equivalent to around 2p in English money!
We travelled back to central Kathmandu on the Chinese built trolleybus system (long since dismantled), definitely a rare experience in Nepal and not one we expected to find, especially at 3 rupees each for me and Champa and the kids for free! The end of a brilliant day.
Patan, Lalitpur, is different from the other two cities….. or so it seems to me. In fact all three have quite different characteristics; Kathmandu a snarling, out of control metropolis; Bhaktapur a complete outdoor museum preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Patan somewhere in between the two, busy, bustling, hidden Newar charm and highly skilled craftsmen working in stone and metal in many a side street. Patan also has a typical Durbar Square …. you still have to pay to walk across it, a wonderful museum in the centre of the square with historical, religious and Newar culture related artefacts, an unusual temple Mahaboudha not far from the centre, and best of all easy access beyond the city outside the ring road to open landscapes and timeless villages such as Siddhipur. It’s also an easy taxi ride across to the town/city of Kirtipur with its clean air, collection of temples, typical Jyapu landscape, and streets and houses with terracotta and red brick that transport you back a couple of hundred years in time.
If you visit only one town outside of the ring road encircling Kathmandu then make it Kirtipur. Another – “pur” to add to your list of Lalitpur, Bhaktapur, and Kantipur but do you know the derivation of the part- word? Originally another Newar city until the unification by Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1767, its history dates back to 1099 AD when it was part of Lalitpur. Now with a population of around 67,000 it is also a university town with a large proportion of student residents. But it is the historical background and architectural features that should draw you here: The brickwork of the buildings and streets, the Buddhist stupa of a particular shape distinct from many in Kathmandu, the embedded Newari culture so visible in clothing, language, food, artefacts and ceremony, the clean environment surrounded by farmland tended by Jyapu, and on clear days a view of hills and mountains.
In fact it was Kirtipur that was the site of probably the most famous battle(s) during Prithvi Narayan Shah’s unification conquests and then surprisingly playing a role in overthrowing the monarchy in 2006:
“In 1767, Kirtipur was annexed to the Gorkhali kingdom by Prithvi Narayan Shah following the Battle of Kirtipur. He conquered the town on his third attempt, after entering it by trickery. After this, he cut off the nose of the people (both male and female) of over 13 years age in the city. The people of Kirtipur never forgot this and in 2006 Kirtipur was the site of an inspirational peaceful demonstration in the mass uprising that overthrew the powers of king Mahendra. It is considered to be an anti-monarchy city due to its bitter history against the Shah dynasty.”
In recent times Nepal’s history has been “turbulent” to say the least. I have truly lost count of how many Prime Ministers it has had between 2006 and 2019, seeming like a schedule was being played out to prearrange whose turn it was next ….. as long as they were a member of the Brahmin or Chettri caste! Sadly after “the revolution” and removal of the monarchy in 2008, the Maoist party TWICE had opportunities to transform the country with a clear focus on healthcare, education, the economy, tourism, agriculture and infrastructure, but all we got was an endless spectacle of meetings and bureaucratic wrangling over how many, and which type of “federal states” should make up the new republic together with a written constitution that would be reached by consensus. Should the states be on ethnic or geographic lines, should they be of equal geographical size or equal population, how should women be allocated equal rights of citizenship (!), should government be cross-party and so on ad nauseum.
I want to close this chapter on Nepal’s history referring to a part of history that has never changed ….. the plight of the Dalit caste, the lowest of the low! I mentioned women’s citizenship rights in the paragraph above, so combining being a woman AND a Dalit in Nepal and saying nothing about their plight shames us all!
The woman in this picture is a Dalit, and many of you reading this post will have no idea what that means, and have no experience of witnessing the treatment of people “labelled” as Dalits. Change the word Dalit to “untouchable” and you might, just might begin to understand, but only slightly.
Imagine living in your comfortable western surroundings in Europe, America, Australia…. and wake up one morning to find that your passport has been confiscated along with your citizenship rights, you have lost your job, nobody will speak to you, look at you, or touch you. Nobody will touch what you have touched, you cannot take any job except garbage cleaning, toilet cleaning, rubbish collecting. You cannot grow or touch food that is to be eaten by others, you cannot cook food that is to be eaten by others. Welcome to the world of being a Dalit!
The Dalit is the lowest caste in the Hindu world and therefore is a real life situation for many in India and Nepal specifically. They are true outcasts since many of the rights and freedoms we take for granted are denied them, including education directly and indirectly.
The first school we aided in Nepal was known as a “Rag School” for “Rag Children”. It had 12 pupils, all under the age of 10 and who came to the tin shack of a school around 11am each day having spent the first 2-3 hours of the day combing the stinking garbage dumps of Kathmandu for anything worth selling, from rags to bits of metal, tyres, boxes and …… food scraps that could be used for pigs and goats feed.
I took the photo of this woman early one morning in Bhaktapur, the sun was shining and she sat down to take a break with a cigarette, probably a little ganja. She had methodically swept the dust away from the terracotta brick floor and the small shrine at the foot of the larger temple of Nyatapola in the town centre. She probably earned just enough to feed herself for a single day. Tomorrow …… who knows, who cares?
HISTORY: A FEW THINGS TO UNDERSTAND AND REMEMBER
• Knowing a little history of a place can give you a LARGE window into that place before you even arrive!
• Follow the history and your mindful travel will be intensified over and over.
• Meet and engage with the locals, YOU are the foreigner!
• Nepal was once a collection of smaller states, unified into one in 1768 by the first king, Prithvi Naryan Shah.
• The monarchy was removed in 2008 as Nepal became a federal republic.
• The caste system is an insidious and inhuman part of Nepal’s history that persists to this day, along with the exclusion of women from many parts of society for a variety of reasons, some cultural and some bureaucratic.
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