I love the sound of rain, and there’s nothing to compare with the deluge of the South-Asian monsoon. Oh how it rains, in fat drops that fill the air and crack! on impact. Gutters, gardens and gullies fill up and overflow. The water pours off the entire width of my patio roof in a silver curtain.
Kathmandu, a dusty place that has modernized too quickly, regains much of its charm in monsoon. The local bricks glow and the stone-flagged streets glisten. The clouds that hide the mountains turn our vision closer, and in the old parts of the city the effect is charming and painterly. A school of Nepali watercolor artists has seized on these scenes.
Clouds Hide Fierce Subtropical Sun
The clouds also hide the fierce subtropical sun and provide a welcome relief from the short South-Asian summer of May and early June. As the cloudy weather builds up in the weeks before the rains, the main rice-growing season starts. Just outside my window, farmers are turning the soil and working in the loads of compost left there during the winter. Once the rains start, those fields will be flooded, then transplanted by hand. The gradual greening of the vista is one of monsoon’s great pleasures.
Nepal remains primarily an agricultural country, and the cycle of rain, planting, and harvest pervades even urban Kathmandu. Everything slows down, from the traffic to politics. Traditional patterns take over: people rise earlier and stick closer to hearth and family.
Monsoon is life for South Asia, where wet-paddy rice cultivation feeds well over a billion people. Because of poor transportation in rural areas (and especially in the Himalayan foothills), a successful local harvest is essential. Even today, in much of the region, if your crop fails, your children go hungry.
Machhendranath Travels Through The City
With so much riding on the rains, rich tradition and ritual surrounds the season. In Kathmandu an ancient rain god presides over the start. He is Bungdya, thousands of years old and now conflated with the Buddhist god of compassion into a local deity, Machhendranath. In the weeks before monsoon, workers assemble a massive chariot more than 3 stories high of wood, bamboo, ropes and vines; then sheath it with evergreen boughs.
Machhendranath is brought from his temple in old Patan and placed in a shrine on the chariot; then the entire unwieldy vehicle is hauled through the old city by teams of men with ropes. Barring accidents, the trip takes three weeks, but accidents are common. Ropes and axles break, wheels come loose, and sometimes the entire tower falls over and has to be rebuilt from the beginning. When that happens, legend says, evil portends for the king in the coming year. The legend will not go away in republican Nepal, since major chariot accidents preceded the 2001 killing of King Birendra and this year’s elimination of the monarchy.
Children will wait impatiently to fly kites to signal Indra that it’s time for the rains to end
With or without a king, Machhendranath will process, the rice will grow, and children will wait impatiently for late August, when they will fly kites high into the slowly-clearing skies to signal Indra, god of the heavens, that it’s time for the rains to end and the harvest to start.
And for the lovely 10 weeks between I will do my errands during the cool, dry mornings and savor the violent late-afternoon thunderstorms. And best of all, I’ll sleep tight every night to the sound of the pouring rain.
John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.