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The Top of the World

January 19. After leaving Paris, our Air India flight shows a film on basic w.c. behavior, evidently for the enlightenment of people who have never been in one: how toilets are flushed, how hot and cold water can be conjured from a faucet, how to use a wash basin, how hands and faces are dried with towels.

January 20. New Delhi. A stultifying, soul-corroding airport. Older men squat on their haunches near the walls, while young ones in ill-fitting red denims go through motions of sweeping the floor. During a seven-hour wait for a constantly delayed Royal Nepal plane, we can do little in the dim light except watch the ebb and flow of other arriving and departing herds. “Have patience, have patience,” a ticket agent says, joining his palms together (the namaste) as if to pray. Most of the people in the boarding-area “lounge” have Mongoloid features, but turbanned Sikhs are here, too, Hindu women in saris clutching strings of “rosary” beads, and American hippie counterculture types, with backpacks and trekking gear. An alluring young woman, long braid, bangle bracelets, suckles her baby on the floor in the lotus position.

Launchings of new Nepali airplanes are accompanied by the ritual sacrifice of animals. Mercifully not detained for such ceremonies, our Caravelle rises steeply over sprawling tenements and parched, rutted land intersected by irrigation ditches. The stewardesses—violet saris, flowers in their hair, the vermilion tikka on their foreheads, collyrium on their eyelids—remind us to advance our watches fifteen minutes, an odd, Through the Looking Glass differentiation; but, then, today in the Nepali calendar is the seventh in the month of Magh in the year 2046.

Halfway to the Nepal capital, the Himalayas burst into view, the white top of the world. In reddish late afternoon light we descend over green hills, terraced rice paddies, and—surprisingly, since Katmandu is southeast, not north, of Delhi, but also appropriately, since the form originated here—a pagoda. Tribhuvan terminal is new, but the brown filigreed woodwork is in traditional Nepalese style. We buy rupees and surrender our bags at Customs where they are ransacked, a consequence, no doubt, of yesterday’s interception of a cache of heroin from Hong Kong. Five rapacious porters, one per bag and two dollars each, push their way toward a small taxi, leaving us to scrimmage against a wall of outstretched hands, like those of tantric Buddhist gods with a superhuman multiplicity of arms.

Theoretically, traffic is to the left, but the road is indivisibly narrow and we encounter only one other automobile. The city streets are unpaved, dust-clouded, choked with people and animals—sacred cows (given wide berth), goats, pigs, chickens, dogs (but no cats: they embody evil spirits)—through which Hondas honk and bicycles weave like figure skaters. In the absence of street lights, the driver takes bearings from cooking fires and the candles of the small shrines and temples that are on every block. The doorman at the Yak and Yeti Hotel brings Gunga Din to mind, perhaps because of his fondness for saluting.

The furnishings in our teak-paneled rooms—mini-bar, telephones, TV (one channel, but with a news program in English)—are Japanese. The windows are permanently locked, probably because of a rich entomological activity—fly whisks are a fixture in Nepalese genre painting, even in depictions of life in heaven—and the outside sills are beds of nails, not for fakirs but against the noisy pigeons that nevertheless roost there during the night. In the restaurant, five booths surrounding an open wood fire with brass funnel chimney, we drink Pol Roget and eat Boris’s beetless borscht; Boris Lissanevitch—his life is recounted in Michael Peissel’s Tigers for Breakfast—is a White Russian who danced for Diaghilev before emigrating to Nepal. The waiters, white livery with red sashes and Nehru-type topis—the national headgear for men—bring what we point to on the English side of the menu with almost no verbal exchanges. By ten o’clock the streets are totally dark, and, except for a taxi stand of three-wheeled bicycle rickshaws, deserted—a curfew, perhaps, because of political tensions. We walk in the hotel garden among small statues of elephants. Ganesh, the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati, is the god of “auspiciousness,” whatever that means.

I go to bed in a state of high expectancy. Ever since New York’s Asia House exhibition in 1975, Nepal: Where the Gods Are Young, ancient Nepali statuette sculpture has seemed to me the most perfect in the representation of human form, except that these figurines represent deities (albeit in the image of man), are venerated as icons, and are not primarily works of art at all; nor do they merely “represent,” since the spirit of the god is believed to reside in its image. I am thinking above all of a numinous ninth-century Bodhisattva Maitreya (the future Buddha) and, of the same period, an incomparably graceful Parvati with “blossoming breasts” (in a word, abhinavayauvanodbhinnakuchabhara), both in gilt-copper; an exquisitely modeled twelfth-century Indra with jeweled diadem; and a fifteenth-century silver image of embracing tantric gods: locked in each other’s eyes, arms, legs (and locking out all thoughts of the separation of mind and matter, of “I” and “Thou,” subject and object), their bodies melt together in an eidolon of Buddhist nonduality.

I am elated, too, to be in the land of the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama—at Lumbini, in elephant and tiger country: “Here the Buddha Sakyamuni was born” is the inscription on a column from the third century BC, excavated in 1896. (Or should it be “Buddha,” in view of the succession of his rebirths? His predecessors remind us of the Essene role model, and the description “the god who has appeared on earth and undergone the fate of man” sounds Christian.) Here in Nepal he may already have begun to dispute with the subtle Brahmin sages about the irrelevance, in a world of human suffering, of preachments on the origins and meanings of the Universe, of how the Infinite could produce the Finite. And here he may have put forth his belief that “within this mortal body, conscious and endowed with a mind, is the world and its origins, and its passing away.”

And I am curious about the phallocentric culture—including tantric erotic practices, largely stamped out in India by the Raj, but living on here—the social institutions, and the ingrown mores of a landlocked, high, and remote state that isolated itself still further in fear of annexation by British India and closed its borders from 1816 to 1950; left entirely to its own resources, Nepal must have developed an eccentric character. I am not a little frightened, however, of a country in which men still volunteer to have their tongues pierced with a steel spike to ensure direct ascent to heaven when they die; and of a country in which animals are still slaughtered on feast days to propitiate gods: in the annual celebration of the Durga deity’s victory over the buffalo demon, Mahasisura, 1,008 buffaloes are beheaded with the kharga sword in a temple courtyard, in which the executioners stand ankledeep in blood. And what of a country whose king must receive yearly permission to continue his rule from a four-year-old “living goddess”? More Lewis Carroll fantastication.

January 21. By mid-morning the fog has burned off and the mountains and the skyline of spires and tridents (Shiva’s weapon) begin to emerge. Katmandu’s only entirely paved; reasonably smooth, and comparatively negotiable road extends from the Royal Palace along Durbah Marg (Palace Way), which has side-walks, shops with plate-glass windows, even street lights. Here, as everywhere else, buses and trucks trail smoke-screens more suitable to chemical warfare. Here, too, traffic is regulated by the scrawny cows that amble into the middle of the road and sometimes settle there for a nap. Road signs, billboards, store-front advertisements, and the bizarre slogans proclaimed on posters—“Mother and Motherhood are Greater than Heaven”—are in English.

Patan, thought to be the oldest Buddhist city in the world, is a peerless aggregation of palace, pagoda, and temple architecture, a museum of the art of carving in stone, teak, and tusk, and a medieval world of indescribable misery and squalor. The Archeological Garden possesses many steles with limestone reliefs and some detached wood sculpture, but no example of the jeweled silver and gold figurines shown fifteen years ago in New York. Even so, some of the craftsmanship of those ancient image makers survives, however debased the art. A few families in the Bincha Bahal neighborhood still carve the life of Buddha in ivory, and Newari men, descendants of the oldest inhabitants, still cast bronzes that Newari women still file smooth.

A nineteenth-century engraving of Patan’s Durbah Square reveals only minor differences with the same perspective today. All but one of the eight temples crowded together here are in the Indian “steeple” style, but the exception, Krishna Mandir, in the Mogul tradition and constructed entirely of stone, is more memorable, partly because of the pillar in front of it, which has a gilded statue of Garuda, the bird-god and Vishnu’s aerial vehicle, here in human form kneeling on top. This, and another pillar surmounted by an enthroned king with the hovering hood of a cobra as protective panoply, stand in about the same relation as the St. Theodore and Lion of St. Mark’s columns in the Piazzetta in Venice—the only Orient–Occident parallel that makes any sense to me thus far.

In the food market, dried fish, betel leaves, oranges, giant cauliflower, radishes, and leeks are stacked on the ground, while salt crystals, chillies and grain, ginger, orange turmeric, cardamom, and buckets of curds are piled on tables. Goats, sacred monkeys, and untouchable cows mingle with a teeming humanity of, mostly, barefoot children, many of them young girls with still younger brothers and sisters strapped to their backs; Katmandu valley is one of the most densely populated regions in the world. The women, dark eyes outlined in black kohl, are remarkably beautiful. Many of them carry head loads, which accounts for their erect, regal bearing without them.

The center of the seventeenth-century Sundari Chowk (courtyard) is the Malla king Siddhi Narsingh’s octagonal bath, Tusha Hiti, celebrated for its ornately carved stone walls (depicting the Nagas—sacred serpents—rain goddesses, and Asta Matrikas—mother-earth goddesses) and sculptures of aquatic animals, fish, turtles, crocodiles; but only the conch-shaped basin, a yoni symbol, has escaped mutilation (or been restored). On the walls of the adjoining temple of Degu Talle, the personal deity of the Malla dynasty (1350–1769), nature has gnawed away some of the decorative intricacies of the wooden struts.

While we are trying to imagine the place as it must have been, a small boy asks in good English where we come from. When I confess, he responds with “Albany is the capital,” with which we become more interested in him than in the history he begins to relate. Handsome, shining with intelligence, this fourteen-year-old is fluent in English, French, Italian, German, and Japanese. (He has lived in Japan, but can he have learned his grammatically correct versions of the other languages from tourists?) Nor is he simply reciting factual information by rote, since he answers questions unrelated to his work as a guide, provides reasoned explanations, and sustains conversations. I am reminded of the untutored mathematical prodigy in Huxley’s “Young Archimedes” who draws Pythagoras’ theorem in squares and triangles with the char-coal end of a stick.

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