Nepal is experiencing a tourist boom this fall, despite political unrest, for many reasons besides the great Himalayas.
Find Kathmandu on a map or globe – just north of India and south of Tibet. It’s probably a long way from you: 7,500 miles from New York, 4,500 miles from London, and 6,000 miles from Sydney.
Kathmandu is actually farther away than that. It is separated from the Western world by a vast gulf of time. Kathmandu is as old as the great cities of Europe and far older than those of the New World, but the gap isn’t the city’s chronological age. Time runs slower here, or at least it doesn’t pass in the frenetic, linear way that most visitors consider normal. Past and present are close in Kathmandu; history, legends, and the present are all equally real. Time is a circle, a cycle of seasons, lives, and eras.
Stuck in a traffic jam on Kathmandu’s main street, called New Road by everyone here, you might not think so. Everything seems all too western. But get out of your taxi at where the road ends and walk a hundred paces to the stone lions that guard the entrance to the palace complex, and you are in a different world.
Stretching out ahead of you to the right is the old palace, built over the course of six hundred years. The first two stories of the brick and wood building closest may date to the 16th century; the low, white-plastered building farther ahead is from the 17th century; the ornate towers above you were built in the 18th century; and the massively columned white building far ahead was built in 1908. One of the foundation stones of the oldest wing of the palace was reused from a 7th century palace. The 7th century inscription says that that palace was built on the site of “the ancient palace.”
Basantapur Square, the open area ahead and to your left, is one of the three loosely connected squares that make up the Kathmandu Durbar Square area. It is named for the tallest of the four towers standing above the brick and wood building to your right. The lower building and the towers are beautiful examples of Newar architecture. This style dominated the architecture of the valley throughout the medieval period and is consistent with two millennia of tradition.
Plain red brick and elaborately carved wood are the hallmarks of the Newar style. Seventh-century Chinese accounts of Kathmandu describe multi-roofed buildings of brick with beautifully carved woodwork. In this earthquake-prone city, most ancient architecture no longer remains, but written records that survive the buildings that stood here over a millennium ago indicate that those structures must have borne a strong resemblance to the ones here today.
Cross the square to a large, three-storey wooden building with an open-air ground level. The building is partially whitewashed, and sometimes red cloth streamers are hung under the roof’s eaves. This is Kasthamandap, the old wooden pavilion.
Kasthamandap’s age is uncertain, but there is a plaque inside it dated 1048, and this alone is enough to make the building one of the oldest known structures in Nepal. It is almost certain that Kathmandu was named for Kasthamandap, located as the pavilion was between the two ancient hamlets that merged to form the old city. Perhaps this structure or one much like it stood here that long ago. We know the current building was here in 1048, but we don’t know how old it was then.
Where historians must be cautious, legend offers a ready account for the origins of this pavilion. Once upon a time, it is said, the god of wood came to Kathmandu in the form of a handsome young man in order to watch one of the city’s colourful festivals. A tantric priest recognized him and bound him to the spot by means of a magical spell. A negotiation ensued between the trapped god and the priest. “Ask for a boon”, said the god, “And I will grant it in return for my release”.
The priest asked for wood to build a temple, and his wish was granted under one condition – that the temple would not be consecrated until the prices of rice and salt became equal. The deal was struck, the god vanished, and the next morning at the spot on which the god had been bound there stood a gigantic celestial tree. The tree was so large that both the Kasthamandap and the Silyan Sattal – the building to the far left with the gilded lions at its corners – are said to have been constructed from its wood.
Next to the two buildings is one of the smallest temples in Nepal, but one of the most important. The temple sits at the corner of the Kasthamandap, where a gilded shrew on a pole faces the shrine reverently.
The shrew is the attendant and mount of the important and popular deity Ganesh, who is always pictured with the head of an elephant and a large, round stomach. The temple has no finial on its pagoda roof so as facilitate Ganesh’s ascent to heaven, reportedly made on a flash of blue light. This shrine is the only place the kings of Nepal must visit on foot. For more than 500 years, each monarch has walked to the temple after his coronation to ask for a good beginning to his reign.
Then turn and walk back to find the beautiful carved-wood and brick house, the home of a child goddess, the Kumari.
There are several Kumaris in the valley, but this is the one of state importance. She is a young girl, selected by way of a vigourous screening system to ensure that she comes from the proper background and possesses the “32 virtues,” including specified physical attributes and a horoscope that matches that of the king’s. (The latter is vital, for since the Kumari is an incarnation of the royal goddess, her annual blessing of the king is considered critical for his rule. This year King Gyanendra was denied the official opportunity for that blessing, but later went unannounced to the house for the ceremony, much to the annoyance of the prime minister.)
After candidates for the Kumari’s position are screened, a chosen few are subject to further trials including tests for the 32nd virtue, courage. The candidate children spend a night in the cellars of a temple amid bloody buffalo heads, while men in masks try to scare them. If a girl is a goddess, she should show no sign of fright under such circumstances, even if she is only four or five years old.
Once chosen, the Kumari leaves her family to come to this house, where a family of hereditary attendants cares for her. She will remain the Kumari until an accident or the onset of puberty causes her to bleed. At that moment, the goddess leaves her, and the girl becomes an ordinary mortal. Another child is selected to replace her. Former Kumaris tend to have considerable adjustment problems upon returning to life as ordinary mortals. It is only recently that tutors have been allowed into the Kumari Ghar; the struggle between traditionalists and reformers with respect to this institution has only just begun.
The institution of the Kumari is very old, but this house and the veneration of a state Kumari date to the time of King Jayaprakash Malla, who was overthrown in 1769. Jayaprakash played dice with the royal goddess at times, to discuss affairs of state, but the goddess’s ground rules were clear: he could not touch her or think lustful thoughts of her. For many years, Jayaprakash followed the rules, but one evening he was overwhelmed by her radiance and reached out to touch her. Quick as a flash she disappeared and only her voice remained, berating the king for his indiscretion.
The crestfallen monarch begged and pleaded until finally the goddess agreed to return in another form. “You will find a Kumari among the Shakya caste,” she said, “And you will worship her as me.”
Jayaprakash was chastened. As per the goddess’s bidding, he built this house and established the state Kumari here. He also established the Kumari’s annual chariot procession, in which the young goddess must bless the king, a part of the ancient Indra Jatra festival. Thus in typically Nepali fashion, the new is grafted on to the old even as the old holds strong; Hindus, like Jayaprakash, and Buddhists, like the Shakya child who becomes the Kumari, together establish religious tradition; and the incredible capacity of its people for assimilation and synthesis makes Kathmandu rich.
John Child is The Newsblaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.